According to a company media release, BHP’s recently built Kwinana Nickel Refinery located south of Perth, Western Australia (WA), is the ‘first of its kind in Australia and will produce enough premium nickel sulphate to make 700,000 electric vehicle batteries each year.’ The processing plant commenced operations in late 2021, converting nickel metal powder into a nickel sulphate hexahydrate crystal product used in lithium-ion batteries. The shopping list of industrial equipment required to process the mineral ore includes leaching tanks, purification technology and reactors built to generate high purity lithium with a relatively low energy input.
Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director, Composites Australia Inc.
GRP Tank Solutions – the WA division of Tank Solutions is one of the local manufacturers to pick up orders from this sizeable shopping list. The company has fabricated five fibreglass leach vessels (tanks) and four reactors in the first of six development phases planned for scaling-up the BHP nickel refinery.
With the largest item measuring a mighty eight metres by 10 metres – or three storeys high – this suite of equipment was built to exacting engineering specifications and is performance and material intensive.
The equipment was hand-lay contact moulded using Derakane™ 470, the epoxy novolac based vinyl ester resin designed for thermal and chemical resistance. The Derakane resin also offers high resistance to solvents, acids and oxidizing substances such as chlorine, with a high retention of strength and toughness at elevated temperatures.
The inside of the fibreglass tanks required a corrosion barrier (or liner) using a combination layer of carbon fibre tissues (or veils) against the inner process surface, followed by three layers of ECR-Glass surface mat. Each resin-rich layer acts as a defence against chemical attack. The carbon fibre tissues and veils are designed specifically for the chemical and petrochemical industries and are used to reduce the likely risk of explosion by dissipating any surface conductivity and static charges. Silicon carbide powder was also added to the resin used on the inside corrosion barrier to strengthen the surface and reduce wear.
According to Mark Ridley, General Manager of GRP Tank Solutions, “Transporting the finished equipment to the Kwinana Nickel Refinery from our Bibra Lake site was logistically challenging. The sheer size of the equipment prevented safe transport to the plant, so we had to lease another shed with suitable production and lifting space that was on a direct route to the plant, unobstructed by overhead power transmission lines.” Once transported, the hydro tests were done on the tanks in-situ in Kwinana.
Annual data released by the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) shows Western Australia’s resources industry achieved record sales of $230 billion in 2021 much of which was fuelled by unprecedented iron ore sales and a strong increase in gold sales. Lithium sales soared to an alltime high of $2.6 billion – a threefold increase, while nickel sales grew to $3.7 billion, the highest value since 2012. Economic forecasts predict that WA’s significant range of critical and battery minerals, including lithium and nickel, will continue to grow as enabling inputs into the clean energy revolution.
Across two production sites in NSW and WA respectively, the Tank Solutions companies have specialised in fibreglass corrosion-resistant liquid storage for the fuel, chemical, oil and gas, and water and waste water markets for close to 40 years. With the recent boost from BHP’s local nickel refinery, GRP Tank Solutions is currently doubling its WA manufacturing footprint by building a new facility in Rockingham – 25 minutes south from its present location – to be operational by early 2023.