ONE OFF THE WOOD: Ric Dawson, managing director of Australia Minerals and Mining Group stopped in this week to give us the low down on his company’s exciting new process for converting kaolin to alumina.
Ric, Australia Minerals and Mining Group (ASX: AKA) recently announced a new technology that is capable of producing 3N high-purity alumina (HPA), what does that mean?
It is a bit of industry jargon – 3N means three nines, therefore we are able to produce alumina of 99.9 per cent purity. People within the industry refer to products being 3N, 4N or 5N.
Basically the more nines, the higher the purity of the alumina product, and therefore the higher the price customers will pay for it.
When you start to enter the 4 nine, or 4N, territory, you begin to see a very significant increase in the price – around $300 to $400 a kilogram, or $300,000 to $400,000 per tonne.
That’s an impressively priced commodity.
The reason the price for the high-purity alumina is so high is because it is used in many different forms these days.
It is in high demand for modern-day technology, being used in LED screens, LCD lights, motherboards and high-tech ceramics, whereas the standard less-pure alumina, basically is a feedstock for the aluminium industry.
The unique element of your process though is the feedstock you are using to produce the alumina. Could you enlighten us as to what that is?
The feedstock being used is aluminous clay, which is probably better known as kaolin.
The samples for the testing were sourced from all four of our South West high purity alumina (HPA) projects in Western Australia, and the material has performed well demonstrating it has the properties to be the ideal clean source of aluminous clay for producing high-purity alumina using our process.
Our consulting processing chemists have verified the purity of product at greater than 99.9 per cent – or greater than 3N.
We expect that once we have made further refinements to the process we will be able to produce a product of 99.99 per cent purity, in other words 4N.
What is kaolin and how is it currently used?
Kaolin is white porcelain clay that has historically been used in ceramics and, to a greater degree but probably less known, in the paper industry providing the sheen across the glossy pages of magazines.
What does your process offer the alumina industry?
What we have accomplished is to identify an adjunct to creating alumina, rather than using bauxite via the Bayer process.
We’re now saying we think we have a new technology, which means we can use aluminous clay – or kaolin – as a feedstock to create alumina.
The Bayer technology is an old technology.
It is a one hundred year old technology. We are aiming to provide an advanced new technology that is a viable alternative.
Are you able to give us an idea of how the process works at this stage?
We are just about to lodge our patents for the process within the next few weeks so if I did tell you I would then have to kill you.
However, what I can tell you is that the kaolin is attacked by an acid-based process and that is completely different to the Bayer process, where they come from the other end of the PH scale using caustic soda to attack the bauxite.
So this is the first time anybody has used kaolin to produce alumina?
There is a Canadian company, called Orbite, using a similar acid-based approach; however they are starting with iron-enriched clay, which means they have to first extract the iron before they can reach our starting point.
They’re probably about 12 months ahead of us at this stage but their share price has gone from 10 cents to five dollars, which demonstrates this type of technological advancement can be rewarded by the stock market.
The kaolin to alumina process, we believe, is going to have a much lower capital cost, it will have a much lower energy cost as it uses lower temperatures and pressures, which all adds up to a much lower operating cost.
The technology produces minimal waste and the key reagents are recyclable, therefore, the efficiencies are high.
You said the Kaolin is being sourced from your South West high purity alumina project. Where is the project located, and what are you doing there?
We own 100 per cent interest of the South West HPA project, which is located in the south west of Western Australia in the Yilgarn mineral belt, through our wholly-owned subsidiary company Kaolin Resources.
The Yilgarn Craton is one of the oldest weathered cratons on earth. The weathered granites have left the residual kaolin so that the deposits are ‘primary’ or ‘in situ’ in nature, as opposed to others that may be ‘secondary’ or transported in nature.
The ancient weathering process has left us with a whitish coloured kaolin that possesses extremely low levels of impurities, such as iron and titanium, and extends from surface to a depth of 42 metres.
The project is made up of one granted exploration licence and nine applications.
We are anticipating being able to source aluminous clay, or kaolin, from our projects at Meckering, Kerrigan, Kellerberrin and Bobalong.
We have already delineated two separate JORC-complaint resources at Meckering and Kerrigan aluminous clay projects.
These two projects already hold a total resource of 150 million tonnes with screened grades of up to 38 per cent alumina, with an exploration target ranging from 485 million tonnes to 830 million tonnes.
We are conducting trial mining in a test pit at Meckering where we have defined a JORC Resource of 65 million tonnes – 16.77 million tonnes indicated and 48.28 million tonnes inferred.
The Inferred Resource at Kerrigan currently stands at 85 million tonnes.
You have indicated your next phase of exploration is being planned to increase this resource. What will this involve and when will it start?
We anticipate this will involve additional aircore and some diamond drilling with geochemical analysis to increase our confidence and size of the Meckering aluminous clay resource, in approximately the middle of this year.
In addition, some planning will go into determining the optimised location for a potential pilot plant to process the aluminous clay to HPA.
We have had significant interest from overseas investors wanting to get a better understanding of our new process, size of the projects and how they can get involved with AMMG.