THE CONFERENCE CALLER: The enormity of Australian heavy rare earths producer, Northern Minerals’ Browns Range project is difficult to encapsulate in such a short feature, however we will try.
The Browns Range project is centred on the Browns Range Dome, a geological feature in the northern Tanami region, straddling both Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
The landholding has proven highly prospective for heavy rare earth mineralisation with plenty of potential for further discoveries.
Northern Minerals has 100 per cent ownership and marketing rights for all but three of the Browns Range Dome tenements and is earning up to an 80 per cent interest in the remaining three that are in Joint Venture with Toro Energy.
The company has substantial deposits of heavy rare earths, particularly the high value element, dysprosium, which became the leading commodity in the development of the project.
Northern Minerals is positioned to become the world’s first major producer of dysprosium outside of China.
Accounting for 60 per cent of Browns Range revenue, dysprosium is the key value driver of the project and is at the core of Northern Minerals’ marketing strategy.
With a high-value, high-purity, dysprosium-rich product, the company is set to become a long term and reliable supplier of dysprosium and other critical heavy rare earths to world markets.
Dysprosium is an essential element in the production of neodymium permanent magnets as it makes them long lasting and able to retain efficiency at extremely high temperatures.
We are slaves to technology and REs enable that technology to be smaller, lighter and more efficient, being a key component in the manufacture of clean energy and high-end technology solutions.
The role REs play in the manufacturing of hybrid and electric vehicles and other high-tech applications has prompted countries to seek long term sustainable supplies to support domestic industries.
Recent work at Browns Range has involved a separation study by US-based K-Technologies (K-Tech).
The study is investigating the possibility of applying separation technology on intermediate mixed rare earths materials produced at Browns Range.
If it works, the technology will enable Northern Minerals to produce separated rare earth oxides that currently require separation in China—including dysprosium oxide and terbium oxide.
The company has partnered with (K-Tech) to assess the suitability of separating Browns Range intermediate mixed rare earth materials with the latter’s proprietary technology.
“It’s exciting to see positive results from the first stages of bench scale testwork being undertaken at K-Tech,” Northern Minerals managing director and CEO George Bauk said.
“If successful, we would have a clear pathway to advance downstream in the supply chain to supply separated products to a much wider customer base.
“We have moved quickly to advance the ore sorter project, identified as a potential game changer for the project.
“Higher grades going into the plant would result in higher production rates and lower operating costs, a double win in terms of improving the economics of the Browns Range project.”
The Browns Range is the first xenotime-hosted rare earth project to be developed anywhere in the world, which means the company needs to fully understand metallurgical processes involved before committing to a full-scale development.
To carry out the appropriate testing the Browns Range Pilot Plant Project has been developed to assess the economic and technical feasibility of a larger scale development.
A staggering 271 individual R&D projects have been planned for the three-year pilot plant stage to conduct experiments on most areas of the plant, including fine grinding, magnetic separation, flotation, leaching, purification and ion exchange, with a focus on improving the efficiency and operation of the sulphation bake kiln.
Although the company is targeting full-scale steady state production by in H1 2020, the variable nature of the R&D program means it is unlikely it will be in a position to forecast production rates during the program.
Northern Minerals was recently able to strike a new offtake agreement with thyssenkrupp Materials Trading Gmbh for 100 per cent of offtake from the Browns Range Pilot Plant Project.
Under the terms of the agreement, all heavy rare earth carbonate will be purchased by thyssenkrupp from the Pilot Plant project, while supplying future flexibility for Northern Minerals to supply heavy rare earths as separated products.
Importantly, the agreement also allows for the sale of the mixed heavy rare earth carbonate product as well as separated rare earth oxides, should Northern Minerals decide to move to product separation during the Pilot Plant project.
The offtake agreement includes all stockpiled product from current and future Pilot Plant project production.