Lead (Pb) is one of the oldest metals known to humans. Its widespread occurrence, relatively simple extraction and combination of desirable properties have made it useful to humans since at least 5000 BC. In deposits mined today, lead is usually found in ore which also contains zinc, silver and commonly copper and is extracted as a co-product of these metals.
Lead is used in building construction, lead-acid batteries, bullets and shot, weights, as part of solders, pewters, fusible alloys, and as a radiation shield.
Australia ranks first in the world in economic lead resources because of the development of the large, world-class zinc-lead-silver deposits at McArthur River, Cannington and Century. This position is further supported by resources in the many other deposits of various sizes in Australia.
Australia also leads the world in mine production of lead and is the world’s largest exporter of lead, with the bulk of Australian production exported as lead bullion to the United Kingdom and some to South Korea. Of the rest, lead in ores and concentrates goes mainly to Japan for further processing, while refined lead is sent to Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, India and Malaysia. Australia is also at the forefront of technological development in lead mining and processing.
Almost all of Australia’s lead-zinc mines are underground operations and are highly mechanised. Ore is drilled and blasted in large volumes, transferred to underground rock crushers by large loaders and trucks before being hoisted to the surface in skips or driven directly to the surface by truck via a spiral access tunnel (decline).
At the surface, the ore is subjected to additional crushing and fine grinding. A flotation process separates the lead and other valuable sulphide minerals from the waste rock particles (tailings) to form a concentrate. The flotation process was developed in Australia in the early days of mining at Broken Hill. Further Australian innovation has resulted in the improved Jameson flotation cell, which is installed in many mines around Australia.