10 August 2012
While the Australian rare earths story most commonly focuses on Lynas Corporation Alkane Resources is on the cusp of developing one of the world’s largest zirconium deposits in regional NSW.
The Dubbo Zirconia project is located 20 kilometres south of Dubbo, and is home to one of the world’s largest reserves of rare earths.
As the company approaches production its main focus has been on developing a pilot processing plant with the help of the Australian National Nuclear Research and Development Organisation (ANSTO).
While more famous for housing the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor, ANSTO also works with mining companies to help determine the best way to treat minerals with naturally occurring radioactivity.
On a tour of its ANSTO pilot plant Alkane managing director Ian Chalmers told Australian Mining the company was aiming to be producing rare earths by 2015. Chalmers said the Dubbo deposit was “very homogenous” and expected to generate revenue of around $504 million a year.
Subject to approvals construction is expected to begin in 2013, and Alkane says it expects to create 300 to 400 jobs during construction and 200 jobs during operation. Apart from the most technical roles, which will be brought in from other parts of Australia, Alkane says workers for the project would be sourced from the local community. Alkane has worked hard to bring the community into the fold from early on, and had some farmers in the mine’s region visiting the pilot plant regularly.
The company also runs tours for schools and interested community members to ensure everyone’s well informed.
Chalmers told Australian Mining Alkane’s close relationship with the community had been part of the reason why the company had avoided the difficulties faced by Lynas. Lynas has faced significant community opposition to its rare earth processing plant in Malaysia, and protestors have been the source of ongoing delays, cost blowouts, and multiple court battles. Chalmers said while radiation levels were virtually non-existent in the Dubbo project, he could not rule out being targeted by protestors.
But while the company’s community and environmental relations are a focus, the research at its ANSTO plant is all about the science behind rare earths processing.
Whilst working with Alkane on a pilot rare earths processing plant, ANSTO has previously partnered with BHP Billiton at the Olympic Dam mine, Energy Resources Australia at the Ranger uranium mine, and a number of other Australian-based miners.
Whilst initially working with uranium companies, ANSTO has since expanded into other minerals that contain natural radioactivity.
The spectrum of these minerals is wide, and can sometimes include the typically humdrum copper and iron ore, but rare earths are more usually the focus. At the pilot plant just outside of Sydney ANSTO takes ore mined at the Dubbo facility and simulates the extraction process.
Unlike minerals such as iron ore, rare earths require more complicated treatment, but an ANSTO official told Australian Mining much of the effort went into the first steps. Sulphuric acid is first combined with the crushed ore and the mixture is then fed into a gas-fired kiln
“A lot of the effort goes into the roasting process,” an ANSTO official told Australian Mining.
“After that a lot of the reactions have already occurred and it’s just a matter of mixing it with water until it all dissolves.”
While most of the rare earths dissolve in solution the waste rock does not, and it gets filtered out.
After more processing and a number of chemical combinations the valuable rare earths are either separated by gravity (similar to combining oil and water) or precipitated out by changing the pH.
While the treatment process in rare earths is similar across the industry adjustments are made to tailor the operation to each mine.
ANSTO told Australian Mining one of the major developments they were working on for not only Alkane but other companies as well was shrinking the size of the operation.
It said an alternative process used by the uranium industry had a much smaller footprint on site and researchers were hoping to expand it to other sectors, including rare earths.
As Alkane inches closer towards the 2015 production deadline Chalmers told Australian Mining the company was working on juggling developments and research to keep on schedule.
He marked final government approvals as other major hurdles beyond the research with ANSTO.
And while so far steering clear of local opposition, the company remains mindful of the importance of keeping those outside the industry on side.
Despite more producers coming online China still controls around 97 per cent of the world’s rare earths, and has imposed quotas on its exports.
Both China and Japan have already marked rare earths as a strategic metal, and developments in the sector, including Alkane’s will be watched closely from home and abroad.