The depletion of the richer iron ore worldwide has made it necessary to process lower quality iron ore. Certain substances, such as potassium, contained within the lower quality iron ore, have
a detrimental effect on the smelting process during steel manufacturing. Therefore, international steel-making companies charge penalties when purchasing iron ore concentrates containing high concentrations of potassium. To date, lower quality iron ore has been blended with high quality iron ore in an attempt to alleviate the potassium concentrations in the export iron ore; however, the
ratio of low quality iron ore to high quality iron ore is increasing, thereby becoming an escalating problem within the economic functioning of the Sishen Iron Ore Mine. It has, therefore, become
necessary to develop an economically viable and environmentally friendly process to reduce the high potassium concentrations contained in the iron ore concentrate of the Sishen Iron Ore Mine.
In this study, we compared solid substrate and submerged fermentation using Aspergillus niger for the production of citric acid, which is used for the chemical leaching of potassium from the
iron ore concentrate. It was found that submerged fermentation proved to be more economical and efficient, producing a maximum citric acid concentration of 102.3 g/L in 96 h of fermentation. ‘Heap
leaching’ simulation experiments were found to be uneconomical, due to the required addition of fungal growth medium every 5 days as a result of growth factor depletion within this time; however, this process removed 17.65% of the potassium from the iron ore concentrate. By contrast, chemical leaching of potassium from the iron ore concentrate proved to be most efficient when using a 1 mol
citric acid leaching solution at 60 ºC, removing 23.53% of the potassium contained within the iron ore concentrate. Therefore, the most economical and efficient process for the removal of potassium from the iron ore concentrate of the Sishen Iron Ore Mine involved a two-stage process whereby citric acid was produced by A. niger, followed by the chemical leaching of the potassium from the iron ore
concentrate using a 1 mol citric acid leaching solution at 60 ºC.