A joint South Korean-Australian mineral processing research project is showing potential to eat into China’s dominance of the high-value and strategically important rare earth industry.
While in its early days, the Ziron Tech project has successfully produced two of the most important metals in the rare earth family; praseodymium and neodymium, which are used to make the permanent magnets used in electric cars and renewable energy systems.
As well as producing samples of the metals weighing up to 18.5 pounds, an agreement to construct a commercial plant producing up to 550 pounds a day was signed last week.
A long time in planning, the key to the Ziron Tech process is a unique orebody located near the city of Dubbo in the Australian State of New South Wales.
If the work in Korea leads to full-scale commercial rare earth production it will be the second Australian project to challenge China’s dominance of the industry, following the Lynas Corporation project based on ore mined at Mt Weld in Western Australia.
Alkane Resources, the original owner of the Dubbo project, spent more than 20 years trying to find a way to commercialize its discovery, which is rich in zirconium (used in ceramics), niobium (used in specialty steel), rare earths, and hafnium (used in nuclear power station control rods), as well as titanium and uranium.
Technical And Cost Challenges
Separating the different metals in a cost-effective way to produce commercially viable product streams proved challenging as did meeting the cost of developing a mine and processing plant.
Earlier this year, Alkane shifted the Dubbo Project into a purpose-designed company, Australian Strategic Minerals (ASM), which started work with research scientists at Korea’s Chungnam National University.
The result is a new, low-energy and environmentally clean, metal processing system which crushes and grinds Dubbo ore before dissolving it in a bath of hydrochloric acid and then drying and separation into product streams.
The first material to emerge from the Ziron Tech process, which is 95% owned by ASM, was a batch of titanium alloy, followed by neodymium alloy.
Since the production of those two alloys were announced around mid-year there has been a steady stream of other metals with pure neodymium metal on July 30 and pure praseodymium metal on August 19.
In early September, production of permanent magnets made from Dubbo-sourced neodymium and praseodymium were reported with each announcement lifting the ASM share price on the Australian stock exchange.
Since being spun-out by Alkane, which has returned its focus on gold mining, the share price of ASM has risen by 140% in less than five months from first day trades in late July at 98 cents (A$1.40) to last sales at $2.38 (A$3.40).
Last week, ASM said it had signed an agreement with South Korea’s Dongkuk Refractory and Steel to build a 550lb a day commercial plant to process Dubbo ore through the Ziron Tech process.
By value at current prices, zirconium is expected to generate the biggest share of revenue (43%), followed by rare earths (30%), niobium (17% and hafnium (10%).
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