THE CONFERENCE CALLER: There’s no denying Neometals (ASX: NMT) – the self-proclaimed “sustainable investment of choice going forward” – is in a league of its own when it comes to the smaller capped mineral houses listed on the Australian bourse. By Mark Fraser
The multi-pronged outfit has its fingers in a number of pies, with all of them relating, in some way or another, to electric vehicle (EV) and energy storage batteries technologies.
During his appearance at the 20th RIU Explorers Conference held in Fremantle last week, Neometals managing director Chris Reed was fairly selective when it came to discussing his company’s undeniably eclectic project portfolio.
Rather than talk about all five of Neometals’ major endeavours, including an advanced conventional nickel exploration play in its home state of Western Australia, Reed focused on two – both of which involve what could be described as above-ground “deposits” that negate the production of carbon dioxide.
The first was its 50:50 incorporated Joint Venture with the German SMS group GmbH to fully develop, and commercialise, its lithium-ion battery recycling technology, while the second involved its vanadium recovery JV in Sweden with unlisted Scandinavian-focused explorer Critical Metals.
In terms of the former, the WA-based company has developed a process flowsheet (known as LIB Recycling Technology) which targets the recovery of valuable materials from consumer electronic batteries – including devices with lithium-cobalt oxide cathodes as well as nickel‐rich EV and stationary storage battery chemistries containing lithium‐nickel-manganese‐cobalt cathodes.
Ultimately, this technology is designed to recover cobalt, nickel, lithium, copper, iron, aluminium, carbon and manganese and turn them into saleable products that can be reused in the battery supply chain.
A 2019 scoping study, based on earlier bench scale testwork, highlighted robust project economics. Data from the successful pilot program is guiding current demonstration trials as well as engineering and feasibility studies. A demonstration plant is being constructed at Hilchenbach, which sits 100 kilometres from Dusseldorf.
During the RIU show Reed suggested the circuit was not just concerned with battery recycling, but would effectively result in the establishment of a base metals refinery, albeit one that was “hydromet not a pyromet”.
“So we just feed batteries into it – that’s all,” he remarked.
“And we beneficiate them too … these grades will double by the time we put them into a leach circuit.
“We did this in Australia and we are using solvent extraction developed in Mt Isa.
“So, we can take batteries of any format, in any state of charge, we safely process them, take out the plastics, the scrap, the metal and aluminium foils, and we get black mass, which is the graphite anode and the battery materials – nickel, lithium, cobalt, manganese – (and we) dissolve them in sulphuric acid, and sequentially strip them out.
“And why we are focused in Germany is 60 per cent of Europe’s battery making operations will be in Germany, and you’ve got the best car makers there, which is fantastic.
“And we’ve secured, for our first demonstration trial, 25 tonnes of EV batteries from one of the leading German car makers. And at the next trial we will run the stationary energy storage batteries and we’ve got about half the feed for that.”
In terms of the vanadium project, which is also a 50:50 JV, Neometals and Critical Metals are evaluating the feasibility of recovering high purity (over 99.5 per cent) vanadium products from three high grade vanadium-bearing steel by-product stockpiles (slag) in Scandinavia owned by SSAB.
Under the agreement, the ASX-listed company will fund and manage the evaluation activities up to the consideration of an investment decision.
According to Neometals, the deal provides a secure basis for the evaluation of an operation capable of processing 200,000t of slag per annum without the need to build a mine and concentrator like existing primary producers.
Other attractive project attributes include the fact the processing flowsheet uses conventional equipment at atmospheric pressure and mild temperatures and there is potentially saleable by-product generation. In addition, there is the likely possibility of a very low, or net zero, greenhouse gas footprint given the absence of mining and a processing route requiring the sequestration of carbon dioxide.
Reed told RIU delegates that while the process would work using sulphuric acid, that would generate a sulphate tail.
“These guys won’t let you do that – they are all tree huggers and stuff like that in Scandinavia,” he said.
“So we’ve developed a process which is essentially a carbonate leach; like a really super-charged soda water.
“You get about 75 per cent extraction, but the tails are carbonate. And so we will actually sequest 65,000 tonnes per annum of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for this project, and given that grade (around 3.93 per cent vanadium pentoxide) it’ll be the lowest cost quartile every day of the week.
“It’s fantastic. It’s not very often that you ever see a project where you’ve got 10 years stockpiled, and these guys are making 240,000 tonnes a year excess on the stockpiles.
“By the time we build it there will be bloody three million tonnes there.
“So, it’s fantastic – I’ve got to say we’ve never been happier with any project we are earning into.”
Reed said Neometals had developed a “fantastic team with a lot of metallurgical and mining skills” that it inherited after developing the Mt Marion lithium project in WA.
“(With) the development and sale of that we’ve given back $55 million in dividends in the last five years (and) we’ve still got $80 million in cash and investments and no debt,” he added.
“What we do and what we present to our shareholders is an unparalleled exposure to this megatrend in these commodities.
“So, we sat back a number of years ago – we got into recycling in 2016 after we started developing Mt Marion because we knew there were better places to be in the supply chain.”