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Over the next 10 years, technologies will shift toward hydrometallurgy Interview with Valeriy N. Tsyplakov, Managing Director of Polymetal Engineering CJSC

June 18, 2018 News
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Mr. Tsyplakov, in 2017, GOST R  57306-2016 “Engineering. Terminology and basic concepts in engineering” came into force for the first time. It stresses that “the hardest part in shaping the terminology system in the ‘engineering’ subject area is the concept of ‘engineering’ itself.” Owing to the obvious fact that the concept of “engineering” keeps expanding in content to span areas that are further and further removed from the traditional work of an engineer, the scope of the “engineering” concept proper essentially defies definition. What is your stance based on your practical experience?

Polymetal Engineering was established in 2004 and that GOST did not exist back then. When choosing our name, we proceeded from the classical western understanding of engineering within EPCM (engineering, procurement, construction, manage­ment). By engineering, we understand those stages in establishing manufacturing that precede equipment acquisition and building an enterprise. In other words, this is work done at all design stages, starting with the pre-design work.

On the one hand, our company has a broader functionality than a standard engineering firm. For instance, we have a Directorate for Technological Research that tests ores and heads, selects a particular technology, develops procedures, makes adjustments to processes relevant to ore variability, which western engineering companies do not do since these works are given to separate companies and specialised labs. On the other hand, today’s engineering companies offer equipment acquisition and construction management services, which Polymetal does not. Polymetal has other subdivisions doing this work. Our holding company has a big number of subdivisions, including geological exploration units and mining companies. We are a subsidiary with our principal commissions coming from other divisions of the holding company and, although we do sometimes have third-party commissions, we have a full load of commissions from our own company and, recently, we have been accepting very few third-party commissions.

What work does Polymetal Engineering CJSC do?

Mostly developing full design and engineering documentation for deposit exploration, including mining, processing ores and heads, enterprise infrastructure, etc. We also work on the preliminary stages of gold-mining projects, such as when assessing deposits from the point of view of the need to explore them and the expedience of doing so. That is, we take part in every stage of investment and construction projects (ICP), starting from determining the technical and economic expedience of exploring a deposit up to establishing a production enterprise.

What is your estimate of the size of the engineering market for gold mining in Russia at year-end 2017? At least by an order of magnitude: RUB 100 million a year, 1 billion, 10 billion?

The figure depends on what we understand by engineering. The market volume for design work in gold mining, in my personal estimate, could be up to RUB 5 billion. 

What has been the market’s recent dynamics, at least qualitatively: stable, upward, downward?

It is growing owing to quite a number of major projects being put into operation, such as Bystrinsky MPP, Natalka and Pavlik. The dynamics of putting such capacities into operation cannot be separated from those of the engineering market. 

What is your estimate of the share of foreign engineering in Russia over the last 5–7 years?

I have a feeling its share is growing. Customers are no longer scared by the higher costs of foreign companies’ services. I think that, so far, this share is below 50% in engineering. If we are talking engineering consulting / audit of resources and reserves, geomechanical analysis of mining conditions, stability of dams on hydraulic structures, etc. and issuing technical recommendations, I think the share of foreign engineering is about 50%. We often use such services. It is important to emphasise here that a western engineering company is incapable of developing documentation that fully complies with all Russian rules and has the degree of detailed development our construction companies are used to. Consequently, foreigners always work on projects together with Russian companies. Foreigners are usually employed on the parts of projects related to specific competences, and no one hires them for basic facilities. A complicated technological process they have been working with for a long time and on which they have accumulated experience is another matter. 

The aspect of collaboration with other Russian or foreign engineering bodies is interesting. Do you invite them to cooperate and, if so, what criteria do you use to choose?

We involve both Russian and foreign companies, since we cannot do everything on our own: we do not have either the capacities or funds, or time to cover everything. In Russia, we hire those whom we believe to be the most advanced in a particular area. For instance, when we are developing design documentation that goes through licensing stages, we involve specialised companies to develop specialised sections (fire and industrial safety, civil defence and emergencies). As regards western companies, we use them to implement those competences that we don’t have or have not mastered sufficiently. Currently, for instance, we involve them to design the technological part of a pressure leaching section. There are rather few companies that do this. In particular, we involved SNC­Lavalin (Canada) and Dev Min (Australia) for engineering services for processing rebellious gold heads from the Albazino and Mayskoe deposits. First, we wanted Russian colleagues, but it’s been a long time since such complicated technologies were used in Russia and there are no high-class professionals with up-to-date experience. 

What kinds of work do you do for third parties?

At one point, we designed projects for several companies, for instance, for Mikhailovsky MPP: a design for reconstructing a calcinating plant, a flotation section design. Recently, we have done little work of that kind and we do not take up major projects since we are up to our ears in our own. Sometimes we take up research projects on technological studies of ores.

The engineering perimeter includes selecting materials and equipment. Suppliers from what countries does Polymetal use and why?

Tender participants come from all over: Russia, China, Japan, Europe, North America and South Africa. We do not prefer equipment from one particular country or supplier. In each specific case, we select the range that is best suited in price, quality and reliability. 

What Russian and foreign companies, in your opinion, hold leading positions in engineering?

Today, many big companies have their own engineering “subsidiaries” working mostly for their own group. Major examples, in addition to Polymetal, are Norilsk Nickel, Polyus and Severstal. Among independent companies, St. Petersburg Mining and Project and Engineering Company (PiterGorProject) is particularly active on the market, taking part in many tenders. As regards foreign colleagues, I would rank them as follows: Hatch, SNC­Lavalin, Fluor in design; SRK Consulting, Golder Associates in consulting. 

What trends would you predict in Russia for the next decade?

The key trend is introducing the world’s best practices. I mean not only using cutting-edge engineering solutions but also amending the legislative framework, which often slows things down. A simple example: the more advanced quarry dump trucks are, the broader their capabilities. They are capable of working on steeper gradients than permitted by the outdated regulations. And this is a huge resource for increasing the operational efficiency of a quarry, since it allows a significant reduction in strip mining.

This is why we have spearheaded educational activities: we translate into Russian and publish world bestsellers on mining. We have already published two books: Optimizing Mining and Guidebook for Designing Open-Pit Sides. Two more are in the works. I think we have thus contributed to launching the Openness and Stability project for changing the regulations on quarry parameters, which have not been revised for 40 years.

Polymetal is known to be Russia’s first enterprise to use the pressure leaching technology. What are the prospects for developing production capacities?

Today, Amur MMC is modernising production to nearly double productivity in sulphide sulphur oxidation, which allows the company to process about 50 % of heads from the Kyzyl deposit instead of selling them to third parties. The works project 2nd phase is currently at the basic engineering stage; the works are intended for processing double refactory ores. We believe this project will be a breakthrough in our area and we will thus expand the range of our raw materials. 

Are there any new engineering technologies being introduced now or slated for introduction?

We do a lot of work on optimising mining. In the company’s assets, deposits with unstable surface rock are the norm rather than the exception. Consequently, to handle these questions, virtually all the companies’ mining enterprises have established geomechanical services. Since Russian universities do not train such professionals, the work was started essentially from scratch, including by training professionals. I think there is nothing special going on now in the technologies for processing ores and heads. 

What technological research and promising areas in processing, and maybe not only processing, would you note particularly?

Hydrometallurgical technologies definitely have prospects. Many people today say that cyanide leaching should be replaced with something else. There are options, but there are major issues relating to economic efficiency. Currently, we are working with a US startup led by a Nobel prize winner in chemistry. We signed a small agreement to test their technology on our ores. The idea is to use ores that cannot be processed using cyanide leaching. But this work is so far in the initial stages.

Soon, regular raw materials will run out, or there will be very little left of them, and we will have to switch to rebellious ores. In Russia, these are arsenical and antimonial gold ores, and auriferous copper and zinc ores high in arsenic. I think, in the next ten years, the technologies for processing heads from such ores will largely shift to hydrometallurgy and pressure technologies will be broadly used, since the arsenic problem is solved “by default.”

In geological exploration, I expect progress in probing for “blind” ore bodies by using various types of radiation. There are many more “blind” gold ore deposits than those with croppings but, today, they are discovered mostly by accident.

Technogenic deposits are one of the most heatedly discussed topics in the gold mining sector. What is your opinion about the technological and economic aspects of the problem?

We have analysed this issue several times and we are not the only ones. Gai MPP, for instance, has spent serious money on developing a technology to process their waste. It proved economically inefficient. Theoretically, something can be done with old Soviet tailings. For instance, at the Baley factory, where tailings have been accumulating since the 1930s and where they appear to be rich. But I don’t think any technological breakthrough will happen in this area in the near future. 

How active are Russian engineering professionals internationally (conferences, exhibitions, personal contacts)? Of special interest is the question of students and young professionals.

Our company regularly attends both Russian and international conferences. We also consider it mandatory to visit flagship enterprises to see cutting-edge technologies. I see quite a large number of Russians at foreign exhibitions, symposia and conferences, mostly representing big companies. Yet there is a certain flow in the opposite direction. For instance, in 2017, a French mining university graduate interned with us. This year, we have received several more requests for internships from foreigners.

As regards young professionals, Polymetal Engineering has established an internship institute for students from St. Petersburg universities. Juniors and seniors work 20 hours a week as our staffers. We give them priority when hiring for engineering vacancies, provided we are satisfied with their work and they are interested, of course.

Are there any complaints about basic education in universities?

I believe that a university should teach how to learn, and not just cram a certain volume of knowledge into a young person’s brain. Students at the St. Petersburg Mining University and at the Saint-Petersburg State Institute of Technology do not have such problems. 

In September, Moscow will host the International Mineral Processing Congress IMPC. What is your assessment of the importance of such congresses for the sector in general and for Polymetal in particular?

This is a very important event, since Russia is hosting this Congress for the first time. Over the last decade, our professionals have been taking part in it. I think this is THE event for us. The Congress clearly demonstrates the trends and the problems in the sector. Exchanging information with colleagues gives us a better grasp of the difficulties and allows us to plan more precisely our own measures for handling them.

Polymetal is known to work not only in Russia but also in the CIS, particularly Kazakhstan. From the point of view of implementing engineering projects, where is it simpler to work?

The company’s position in general is to keep hold of the principal technologies for improving operational efficiency in mining and processing. To implement the Kyzyl project, we obtained an engineering licence. In our experience, it is easier to go through the licensing process in Kazakhstan: it is easier to create regulatory acts there than in Russia. 

Mr. Tsyplakov, thank you for the interview!