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BHP Billiton has extended the completion date for its Ravensthorpe Nickel Project feasibility study to ensure improved processing and better returns.

President Nickel Operations - Western Australia - Ken Hellsten said the merger of BHP and Billiton had opened up new process opportunities for the Ravensthorpe project including an innovative Atmospheric Pressure Leach process.

"These new opportunities have created a requirement to extend our timetable to the last quarter of 2002," he said.

The proposed Ravensthorpe/Yabulu project entails a nickel/cobalt hydroxide intermediate product from Ravensthorpe being shipped to the QNI Yabulu Refinery in Townsville for further refining.

As a result, production output at the Yabulu Refinery will be expanded from the current 29,000 tpa nickel, to nearly 70,000 tpa.

BHP Billiton purchased the remaining 50 per cent interest in the Ravensthorpe Nickel Project in Western Australia at a cost of A$28 million earlier this year.

Mr Hellsten said nickel laterite refining was very complex.

"We have done modeling and test work on an advanced Acid Pressure Leach process. The merger has provided access to an exclusive new technology called Atmospheric Pressure Leach.

"This will help us achieve improved project returns at Ravensthorpe and consequently for Yabulu."

Mr Hellsten said BHP Billiton has an excellent record for establishing successful projects.

"Our Cerro Matoso expansion project in Colombia was completed ahead of schedule and under budget," he said.

"We wish to achieve a similar result with the Ravensthorpe project subject to receiving project approval from the BHP Billiton Board.

"We are also mindful that we need to incorporate solutions to the technical lessons learnt by other laterite projects recently developed in Western Australia."

The Ravensthorpe nickel project comprises the construction of a mine, beneficiation facility, acid pressure leach and hydroxide precipitation plant, together with associated utilities and infrastructure.

"We believe that proper design, detailed engineering, extensive test work and careful selection of materials are the 'keys to success' with this style of project. A dollar properly spent now will save us a considerable amount in the long run," Mr Hellsten said.

There are various critical review milestones on the Ravensthorpe project. The first of these is scheduled for November/December this year, when the process flow sheet will be finalised.

A further detailed feasibility study will then be undertaken. The study will include confirmatory test work, engineering and several pilot runs of Ravensthorpe's nickel ore.

"We will be encouraging employees to live locally, our preference is not for a fly-in, fly-out project," Mr Hellsten said.

"To facilitate this we need to secure essential WA state and federal government funding for multi-user community infrastructure in the south coast of Western Australia. Federal, state and local governments have worked closely with the project team to outline the infrastructure requirements to support a residential operation of this scope and we look forward to their continued support", he said.

BHP Billiton will be contributing a portion of the funding required.

Mr Hellsten said the extensive testwork and the ability to significantly upgrade the Ravensthorpe ore to nearly two percent nickel content would make the project one of the best laterite nickel projects in the country.

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