Three Rare Earth Projects That Might Be Flying Below Your Radar (Part 1 of 3)
In this three-part series we cover three of the world’s lesser-known rare earth projects. While it is easy to get caught up in the horse-race of projects owned by publicly-traded juniors, it’s important to acknowledge the array of less-conventional, yet still promising, rare-earth projects that are riding below the radar of many. With juniors facing an ensuing drought for capital, and equity markets still fluttering on broader economic woes, private- and sovereign-backed projects may enjoy a strategic advantage as the shakeout of the rare earth industry escalates.
Part 1: The Mabounié Nb–Ta–REE–U–P deposit in the Lambaréné area of Gabon
First discovered in 1986 by the French Geological Survey (BRGM), the polymetallic deposit has changed hands a number of times over the years, with the Gabonese Republic continuously maintaining a share of ownership. The deposit is currently owned by Maboumine, a joint-venture (JV) between Comilog (a subsidiary of French mining and metallurgical group, Eramet) and the Gabonese Republic.
In the mid-1990s a pre-feasibility study was launched to assess the prospect of developing a potash mine from the Mabounié deposit. The study delineated 140 million tonnes of ore at 24% P2O5, of which 100 million tonnes was thought to have been exploitable by open pit mining. The study also proposed yielding niobium (from pyrochlore) as a by-product and it was estimated that the volume of niobium that could be produced would account for 15% of annual global supply. Preliminary capital costs for the mine were estimated at $600 million.
In 2000, the owners of the project (Cluff Gold, Treibacher Industrie, the Gabonese Republic, and others) established a pilot plant to test a process for concentrating niobium oxide, demonstrating that a concentrate grading 51 wt. % Nb2O5 could be produced at a recovery rate of 37.6% to 41.5%. However, the concentrate bore unacceptable levels of phosphate for ferro-niobium production and an efficient flow-sheet was never ultimately developed. At the time, Cluff estimated that Mabounié hosted an indicated mineral resource of 21.6 million tonnes grading 1.6% Nb2O5. Cluff Gold (later known as Ridge Mining, now Amara Mining) relinquished its interest in the deposit in 2005 citing that its investment was worthless following the shutdown of its niobium processing facilities in the Netherlands.
In 2005 Eramet became a shareholder fostering birth of Maboumine JV
In 2005 Eramet’s Comilog became a shareholder, spurring the birth of the Maboumine JV, and in 2008 it increased its ownership in the project to 60%. From 2005 through 2008 Eramet attempted recovery of niobium from Mabounié ores using pyrometallurgical processes with little success. Since 2008 more than 100 people have worked at developing an efficient hydrometallurgical process for Mabounié, and at present, more than 20 people from the Eramet group are charged with driving the project forward.
Interestingly, the Maboumine JV has placed an unprecedentedly-early emphasis on tackling processing and separation. Undoubtedly taking note of the struggles of the deposit’s past owners, Eramet has been steadfast in its determination to first ‘unlock’ the deposit’s metals, whereas a typical explorer would be focused on first defining the resource. Aside from developing a suitable recovery process, the logical next steps for the project will be exploring and defining the mineralized resource, and launching preliminary environmental, social, and economic studies. Offering the chicken before the egg, the Gabonese government has already granted the JV exploration and mining licenses for the Mabounié deposit.
The company began work on a demonstration plant for its hydrometallurgical process in 2012 and began development of an on-site camp to house up to 120 employees. It is currently working to refine its hydrometallurgical processes at two facilities; AREVA’s Bessines unit and Eramet’s Trappes research center, both of which are in France. According to Eramet and Gabonese officials, if current testing yields an efficient process, the JV aims to establish a pilot plant on-site in 2015. According to the Gabonese Minister of Industry and Mines almost $72 million (35.7 billion CFA Francs) was spent on the project in 2012, which is challenging to believe without greater clarification.
Alleged to be in discussions with prospective partners and off-takers
The company is currently planning drilling programs to define the Mabounié resource, and has called on Gabonese and international experts to assist in the completion of social and environmental studies. The company is already alleged to be in discussions with Rhodia, Areva, and the Roullier Group for partnerships or off-take of rare-earths, uranium, and phosphate, respectively, which if established, could launch the project from the shadows to the limelight in short order.
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