Kaolin is one of those minerals that is used in everyday life but is consistently overlooked, unlike higher profile mining products such as rare earths, lithium and gold.

Yet, a closer look at what it is used for shows how indispensable kaolin actually is.

Paper, rubber, paint, ceramics, fibreglass, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals are just some notable examples with about 5kg of kaolin used in the manufacture of each car.

According to Grand View Research, the kaolin market is expected to climb from $US4.76bn in 2019 to $US6.3bn by 2027 with current supply impacted by environmental constraints and the exhaustion of premium production in the UK and US.

Demand for halloysite, a rare derivative of kaolin, is also high as demonstrated by Andromeda Metals (ASX:ADN) signing a binding offtake agreement with a Japanese customer last month for the supply of 5,000tpa of a premium ceramic grade product.

But it is the conversion of kaolin into high-purity alumina (HPA), which is used in a variety of high tech applications, including coating porous polymer separators that are used in lithium-ion batteries to improve safety by improving thermal performance, that could really see the white mineral take off.

Indeed, CRU Consulting has forecast that HPA demand could climb from some 30,000 tonnes per annum in 2020 to 272,000tpa by 2028.

Small cap kaolin plays

Australian miners have been on top of the game in relation to the expected increase in kaolin demand with some relative newcomers joining the older hands at the market.

Altech Chemicals (ASX:ATC) has been progressing its HPA plans for several years now and has just commenced pre-feasibility studies for construction of a battery materials HPA plant in Saxony, Germany.

Under the proposed first phase, the plant will be capable of producing 10,000tpa of anode graphite using the company’s alumina coating technology.

It had previously reported that the testing of batteries with graphite particles coated with HPA using its technology had exceeded expectations, though no details were provided.

The company is also in the midst of securing the balance of finance for its Malaysian HPA plant.

Latin Resources (ASX:LRS) holds the Noombenberry project in WA where recent drilling has intersected high-grade halloysite and ultra-bright kaolin zones.

The latest results show consistent high grade halloysite with assays topping up at 8m at 35 per cent halloysite within a broader 26m intersection grading 24 per cent halloysite.

Preliminary work for the upcoming JORC resource is on track for release in the second quarter of 2021.

PepinNini Minerals (ASX:PNN) is one of the new entrants into the kaolin scene with managing director Rebecca Holland-Kennedy telling Stockhead that the company had been looking for a suitable project for some time.

She noted that its recent acquisition of Hillside Minerals and its kaolin clay tenements in South Australia was sparked by the market interest in Kaolin, or potentially the higher grade halloysite product, which could command a premium price while remaining simple to explore for.

“The market for halloysite is increasing as uses are defined. So we see potential for growth and with relatively simple exploration and processing and the location in South Australia a project that complements our lithium project,” Holland-Kennedy added.

“We would be looking at the HPA sector as halloysite is a feedstock for HPA manufacture.”

The two Hillside licences directly adjoin Andromeda’s tenements and cover 1,129sqkm with recorded occurrences of kaolin clay.

Upcoming work includes regional interpretation, reconnaissance work and mapping, geophysics and drilling.

Suvo Strategic Minerals (ASX:SUV) owns Australia’s only operating hydrous kaolin plant – the Pittong plant in Ballarat, Victoria, which it acquired from French multinational Imerys S.A. late last year.

Executive chairman Robert Martin told Stockhead that the company plans to quadruple production from Pittong over the next 18 months and is also in the process of developing an ever larger plant in Western Australia.

“Having the only plant capable of producing hydrous kaolin allows us to access the higher value end user markets. We’re targeting paper, paint, ceramics and coatings,” he noted.

“We inherited more than 360 clients when we bought Pittong so we have a ready made market.

“We also have an ultra rare and very unique grade of pharmaceutical kaolin that we currently sell for $3000 per tonne which presents us opportunities to increase our sales in this premium grade rare grade.”

Suvo is currently studying the potential to produce HPA to the high purity 4N and 5N specifications from its White Cloud kaolin project in WA.

Martin noted that the company is poised to begin design of the Pittong upgrade and will progress White Cloud to higher confidence feasibility studies in order to progress the mining licence application process.

The company has also signed a MoU with top tier Chinese ceramic producer LIXIL AS Sanitary Manufacturing (Tianjin).

In January, WA Kaolin (ASX:WAK) kicked off Stage 1 building works for its Wickepin kaolin project about 220km southeast of Perth.

The project has a resource of 644.5Mt of kaolinised granite that is characterised by its purity, quality and brightness.

WA Kaolin also owns a small scale processing plant at Kwinana, WA.