“The lead industry is an important source of revenue for the country”
CEO of NILZCO in an Interview with FelezatOnline:

“The lead industry is an important source of revenue for the country”

The National Iranian Lead & Zinc Company (NILZCO) is the largest producer of refined lead from lead concentrate. The company owns the largest Kaldo converter in the world, linking lead production to the most modern technologies out there. The industrial company produces 99.995% lead known as NILZ. To get more information about the current state of the company, FelezatOnline has interviewed Ali Asghar Safari, the CEO of NILZCO, for this issue’s Insider Talk.

Please give us a background about the company and its operations.

Over the past two decades, the 32 member countries of the International Lead and Zinc Study Group (ILZSG) accounted for 90% of global output of lead and zinc ore; the members list has remained almost unchanged over the past 20 years. Australia, the US, former Soviet Union nations, and Canada account for half of global lead ore production. In Iran, following the decision of the Supreme Council of Economy, the National Iranian Lead & Zinc Company was established in the early 1360s in order to prevent sales of raw materials and create added value. The necessary studies about the common ways of recovering lead metal from ore were rapidly conducted and eventually in 1363 the Top Blown Rotary Converter method (TBRC) was selected. After signing contracts with the Swedish company Boliden for technical knowledge transfer and the German Mannesmann Demag for providing and designing machinery between 1363 and 1370, lead production operations in Iran started in 1371.

Why is primary lead production so low despite rich reserves of lead in Iran?

Since the Iranian lead ore is mostly sulfide, recovering lead requires investment in roasting systems and acid production; with the absence of such systems, the production of lead from sulfide ore has decreased. Yet NILZCO has special plans for ramping up primary lead production from sulfide ore. If raw materials are available, primary lead output will get a major boost. Moreover, lead recovered from used batteries accounts for a major part of the market and refining it to over 99% requires extra methods beyond the conventional ways, leading to higher production costs. But NILZCO produces lead with the highest grade in the market using modern methods.

How do you procure lead concentrate?

Lead ore is usually either in oxide or sulfide forms. The production process has been designed for both types of concentrate, but oxide lead concentrate is the main feed for the plant. We secure raw materials from both domestic and foreign sources.

What is your nameplate capacity and utilization rate in primary lead production?

The shortage of lead ore is a major problem in primary lead production. Over the recent years, lead ore concentrate has been exported in large volumes, leading to significant production drops in the country and especially in NILZCO. The company’s nameplate capacity is 40 thousand tonnes of lead per year, but depending on the availability of lead concentrate, our utilization rate has been about 10% on average.

What is the grade of lead concentrate feed for the smelter?

Due to the type of lead concentrate and the grade decline of oxide concentrate in the country’s reserves, the grade of the concentrate is about 50-52%. In the 1370s, however, the grade was as high as 60-65%.

What is the recovery rate of lead concentrate?

Owing to the design of the production line, recovery rate is often over 94% with very limited tailings. The remaining part of the lead content is in the slag, which is further processed and recovered using other methods and small furnaces.

What technology are you using to produce primary lead?

Since the feed is mainly cerussite (PbCO3), the TBRC method and Kaldo converters are used and the final product has a grade of over 99.99%. One of the most important reasons for using this technology is to eliminate roasting and its capital intensity as well as to avoid high maintenance costs, leading to more economical operations for the company. Another advantage is that different types of concentrate with varying ratios and combinations can be used. Moreover, it is also possible to use the dust from production lines and tailings from the zinc leaching unit. The furnace is a closed chamber and has no emissions. Also, since the different production lines are a closed system, power consumption is minimized and there is no need for large volumes of high-quality coke in smelting and reduction. Optimal control over the chemical reactions in the furnace is an extra advantage of the method.

Where is the technology imported from? Do you have any plans to domestically adapt the technology or machinery?

The German company Mannesmann Demag has supplied the machinery and equipment. The technical knowledge for the production line has been obtained from the Swedish Boliden. Due to the current sanctions and the overall international atmosphere, NILZCO has devised plans to domestically adapt the machinery and components. Some great projects have been implemented over the recent years and other such projects will continue. In 1397, the Kaldo furnace (the largest double-axis furnace in the world) was successfully overhauled using the talents and hard work of domestic professionals. Moreover, one of the riskiest projects of the company, the conversion of the Kaldo furnace into a gas-fueled furnace, was carried out.

What companies mostly use your products? Do you have plans for exports?

Producers of lead and zinc, steelmakers, battery producers, anode producers, and the defense industry are among the main consumers of our products. We are also planning to export part of our output.

What share of your products is exported? How much of your output is sold on domestic markets?

Production-related issues have only accelerated rather than easing off. Sanctions, complicated, time-consuming bureaucratic procedures and so on are major obstacles to exports. With all this, about 90% of our output is sold on the domestic market and the remaining is exported, mostly to China and Turkey.

What are your solutions to the environmental issues involved in the production of refined lead?

Given the importance of environmental issues and the company’s objectives in that regard as well as the design of the production line (treatment systems account for 35-40% of total design costs), all systems in the production line are in a closed circuit and the company controls all machinery, systems, and regular maintenance processes.

The company is going beyond its social responsibility to isolate tailings, install online control systems, dig monitoring boreholes and so on. In 1398, over 24 environmental projects were implemented, about 65% of which were completed and the remaining have a progress of about 75%. Further, over the past five years, we have taken great infrastructure measures with a new, scientific approach towards our social and environmental responsibilities. New scientific and industrial achievements recently accomplished with direct collaboration from university professors and experts within the company have created new solutions in line with the company’s sustainable development goals. NILZCO is a pioneering company in the environmental frontline and can be compared to similar companies in developed countries.

The company’s residential town with 60 units, where the families of the managers and the personnel live, is located in the vicinity of the factory. Regular tests and monitoring show that living in the proximity of the smelter has not affected the health and lifestyle of the residents; all the people living in the residential town are in perfect health.

Since the technology used for designing and building NILZCO is from Mannesmann Demag and the technical knowledge is from Boliden, at least 35% of the capital for building the company and especially the lead plant has been spent on equipment for controlling and minimizing emissions filtration. Great measures have been taken to enhance the system and protect the staff and the environment. The results of the latest tests conducted by a trusted lab and under environmental standards and regulations on the emissions and key performance indicators over the recent years are proof. Moreover, over the recent years and particularly in the second half of 1398, there have been massive projects to enhance and optimize the efficiency of the filters and reports have been sent to the related organizations on a regular basis. In the fall of 1398, the company renewed all of the air filters. The company has always been a major hub for recruiting and training people and currently employs 400 people directly and over 2,500 people indirectly while complying with health and safety standards and prioritizing environmental regulations.

Has there been a clear-cut plan for dealing with environmental concerns over the past years?

The company has spent tens of billions of tomans on over 16 specific projects to create the perfect conditions in terms of health and environment. These include the isolation of the tailings disposal site using geomembrane liners, collecting all tailings and transferring them to the isolation site, upgrading the filtration system (changing all filters), analyzing and testing the output and pollutants (water, dust, air), EMS projects, studies on tailings management and implementing them according to the Fifth Development Plan, scraping the surface of tailings-covered lands, designing and building two tire-wash system for the machinery, regularly applying mulch on the cake surfaces as the hot season approaches (the technical knowledge for applying mulch on mining tailings is a new method devised by the company’s research team), digging three piezometer wells and regularly monitoring underground water, enclosing the tailings disposal site and enhancing the human wastewater treatment system, upgrading the emissions control system (online analyzer), conducting periodical tests on the staff according to the latest requirements of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education, overhauling and upgrading the systems for water and air treatment and changing all gas filters. More projects and plans are yet to be devised and implemented in the future.

What development plans are there for the company’s outlook?

Launching the BZS plant and ramping up its capacity, using the cakes from the zinc plant to recover the remaining metal content, conducting studies on the feasibility of using different types of lead concentrate as feed, and carrying out research on using sulfide ore with new methods are among the most important development plans; once approved by the company’s board of directors, these plans will be carried out.

How do evaluate the outlook for the domestic lead industry?

Given the application of lead in the production of batteries as well as the defense industry, provided that enough concentrate is produced by the mines, primary lead production will be profitable. Beyond meeting domestic demand, large-scale exports will also be possible and the industry will bring in massive revenue for the country.

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