WA report card: Strong showing for downstream processing of critical minerals
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Downstream processing – particularly of lithium and other strategic minerals such as rare earths – has been a subject of keen interest to Australia’s leading mining state, Western Australia, as a means of delivering greater revenue and more jobs.
So when rare earths producer Lynas Corporation announced its decision to build a processing plant near Kalgoorlie that could underpin the establishment of a critical minerals hub, it was hailed as a “fantastic result” by Premier Mark McGowan.
Lynas’ new cracking and leaching plant will upgrade rare earths concentrate from its Mt Weld project that is currently exported to its processing facility in Malaysia.
The company, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the global rare earths market, noted the move was a further step towards delivering on the Australian government’s Critical Minerals Strategy and the WA government’s objective of attracting more downstream processing.
Lynas also said that it would explore opportunities for further processing, namely upstream solvent extraction which separates the various elements that make up rare earths.
“This investment in infrastructure, the local workforce and research, is a key example of how the WA government is working with industry to diversify the economy and deliver jobs of the future,” McGowan said.
Western Australia Minister for Mining and Petroleum Bill Johnston said that downstream processing was a key plank of the state government’s Future Battery Industry Strategy to place WA at the centre of the global battery supply chain by supporting investment that enabled raw materials to be processed into more valuable products.
So is this approach working out for the state? The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC) certainly seems to think so.
“Western Australia is making strong steps down the value chain in a number of critical minerals including lithium and rare earths,” AMEC chief executive officer Warren Pearce told Stockhead.
“Securing the Lynas rare earth plant is a great outcome for Kalgoorlie and Western Australia.”
This progress can also be seen in Tianqi Lithium’s first stage processing plant in Kwinana, which came online in September this year and is expected to produce 24,000 tonnes of battery-grade lithium hydroxide after a 12-18 month ramp-up period.
Likewise, Tianqi’s Talison Lithium partner Abermarle Resources is building a lithium hydroxide plant with two production trains at Kemerton in WA’s southwest that is due to be commissioned in 2021.
On a smaller scale, Northern Minerals (ASX:NTU) recently completed the majority of work aimed at improving recovery, availability and throughput at its Browns Range pilot plant project that started producing rare earths concentrate this year.
It is currently progressing bench-scale separation test work and is completing detailed engineering for its ore sorting project.
Other small-cap players have also spelled out their downstream processing plans in Western Australia.
Hastings Technology Metals (ASX:HAS) is progressing its Yangibana rare earths project in WA’s Upper Gascoyne Region towards production.
The company has already secured the key environmental permit and is progressing discussions on financing the project.
Australian Vanadium (ASX:AVL) signed an option agreement in October to locate the processing plant for its self-named project at Geraldton, which could lower operating costs by using existing gas, water, road and rail infrastructure.
This plant will take ore from the project at Meekatharra to produce vanadium pentoxide flake.
Kibaran Resources (ASX:KNL) has selected Kwinana as the preferred site for its graphite processing plant using its EcoGraf processing technology.
The proposed plant, which has secured support from the WA government, will import natural flake graphite from existing producers and turn it into battery (spherical) graphite.
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