All Images: Northern Minerals.
BY CAMERON DRUMMOND
NORTHERN Minerals’ Browns Range heavy rare earth (HRE) project is underway, with a Stage 1 pilot plant near completion amidst big plans to meet the growing demand for dysprosium.
160KM south east of Halls Creek in northern WA, Browns Range represents an opportunity for Australia to become a leading producer of dysprosium outside China.
The little-read-about element is crucial to the manufacture of permanent magnets and a fundamental ingredient in high-torque motors used in wind turbines as well as electric vehicles, which use about 100 grams of the HRE.
Dysprosium makes magnets last longer and retain efficiency at extremely high temperatures.
It also makes up part of the control rods used in nuclear power generation and has a range of military technology applications.
Since Molycorp – a large producer of rare earths (RE) and HRE, including dysprosium – filed for bankruptcy in 2015, China lifted its production to meet global supply.
However, with degradation of its rare-earth containing clays due to years of over mining beginning to show, a significant portion of Chinese mining is thought to be occurring illegally.
Combined with increased regulation on mining and manufacturing to stem, volatility has triggered the search for overseas suppliers.
“Supplies of HREs from China are likely to become scarcer, with market commentators forecasting China’s HRE resources will be exhausted in 10-20 years at current rates of exploitation,” Northern Minerals said in a statement.
“Furthermore, the Chinese Government continues to consolidate the industry into six rare earth producers to promote domestic downstream value added production and assist in curbing illegal mining and processing.”
This, says Northern Minerals’ executive chairman Colin McCavana, puts the company in the box seat to meet the expected growth in dysprosium demand.
“The development of the Browns Range project sets Northern Minerals up as the only producer of dysprosium outside of China, positioning us as strategic from a global supply perspective,” Mr McCavana said.
“The UK and Europe have both signalled there will only be new electric vehicles sold in those markets post 2040.
“China has also signalled that it will be moving towards 100 per cent electric vehicles and we believe that this move, from a volume perspective, will become the dominant theme.”
Following a review in February 2016, Northern Minerals developed a new business plan to support Browns Range’s pathway to production.
The project will be split into four development stages, allowing Northern Minerals to test the process and market the mixed RE carbonate product with a pilot plant, then develop Browns Range to a bankable feasibility study (BFS) level, build the full-scale operation, and ultimately develop heavy rare earths separation capacity.
In 2017, the Northern Minerals board approved the construction of the $56m first stage, three-year research and development pilot plant at Browns Range that will run at 10 per cent of the overall project output.
The company said the plant would provide an opportunity to gain production experience, surety of supply for its offtake partners, and assess the economic and technical feasibility of the larger full-scale development.
Northern Minerals managing director George Bauk said mining for the pilot plant during 2017 stockpiled 180,000t of ore to be drawn down over the first stage of the project.
“[Annually] we will produce 573,000kg of mixed RE carbonate, containing 49,400kg of dysprosium as well as terbium, lutetium, neodymium and praseodymium,” Mr Bauk said.
“All of the mixed rare earth carbonate will be purchased by Lianyugang Zeyu New Materials Sales Co.
“The mixed RE carbonate will be processed in Lianyugang, China, into its various components for use in the energy metals sector.”
The pilot plant is expected to be completed by June 30 this year.
Browns Range reserves have a rare earth oxide content of about 6600 parts per million, of which 8.9 per cent is dysprosium.
At full scale operation, Browns Range would produce about 585,000 tonnes per annum for 1,500,000kg of total RE oxide, making it a globally significant dysprosium producer.
As well as expanding to a full-sized plant, Northern Minerals also has plans to develop its own separation capacity, a move which would allow downstream processing of HRE’s into a higher value product.
Dysprosium oxide and terbium oxide would be produced, exposing the company to a wide customer base.
In tandem with Stage 1 development, the company recently raised $15m in a share purchase plan for exploration work to expand on Browns Range’s mineral resource.
“Recent regional sampling has returned grades up to 10 times higher than the average Brown Range deposits, these grades are similar to what was found at our Wolverine site, which is one of the largest heavy rare earth deposits in the world,” Mr Bauk said.
“The additional funds raised will allow Northern Minerals to accelerate our exploration, get drilling rigs back on the ground in the June quarter, and implement ore processing to help us become the first significant supplier outside of China.”
BROWNS RANGE: 4 STAGE APPROACH
STAGE 1 – Test Pilot Plant
10% of full capacity
Production Start: July 2018
72ktpa capacity plant
STAGE 2 – Refine Project
Reduce mining cost
Funding plan to progress initiatives
STAGE 3 – Build Full Scale
1,500,000kg premium TREO product
Initial 11-year mine life
STAGE 4 – Downstream
Separation of heavy rare earth elements
Production of dysprosium oxide and terbium oxide
Wider potential customer base