Wolf Minerals investors should heed these history lessons
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History hangs heavily over the head of Wolf Minerals, an Australian company behind a British mine producing tungsten, a metal dubbed, with only slight exaggeration, “the war metal”.
It’s the history which ought to be ringing alarm bells for investors who have just discovered Wolf which rose by 91 per cent last week when it shot from 6c to 11.5c, before easing back to around 9.4c.
The first history lesson requires a look at Wolf’s track record, starting ten years ago when it acquired the Hemerdon Ball tungsten project near Plymouth in Britain’s west country, an exciting deal which sent the company’s share price up to $2.80 in December, 2007 – 30 times higher than today.
The second history lesson, after digesting the long and painful share-price decline of Wolf, which has renamed the mine Drakelands, lies in the metal itself which has a spectacularly erratic price, soaring briefly before crashing back into a long slump.
Tungsten, also known as wolfram (hence the name of the company), is a difficult material, not least because it has the highest melting point of all metals — a staggering 3422 degrees Celsius, more than double the melting point of steel (and half that of the sun’s surface).
It’s the high melting point which saw tungsten find its first significant commercial use, as the filament in incandescent lightbulbs, those used before the era of the halogen bulb and light-emitting diode (LED).
The other significant uses for tungsten include the surface of cutting tools such as chisels, the “teeth” of equipment used in hard-rock mines, and the tips of artillery shells, an application which gave the metal its nickname of the war metal.
Military demand for tungsten is obviously limited given that major wars occur relatively infrequently and that also explains why Hemerdon Ball, or Drakelands as it now called, has never been a significant success in the 150 years since it was discovered.
Only during the first and second world wars did the mine come close to operating consistently, but rarely has it made a profit for its owners with complex geology, difficult ore, and a tricky location being some of the problems inherited by Wolf, reasons for the company’s low share price, until last week’s bounce.
What’s change for tungsten and Wolf is that China has decided it’s time to clean-up its backyard, forcing the closure of its most polluting factories and mines, a process which is limiting supply and driving up the price of several metals, including aluminium, rare earths, steel and tungsten.
Since late last year, according to Wolf, the price of tungsten has risen by 44 per cent from $US187 per metric tonne unit (mtu) to $US269/mtu, with the rate of increase accelerating as Chinese production declines.
Tungsten-exposed companies operating in Australia are sharing in the revival which is driving Wolf’s share price.
Vital Metals, which owns the Watershed tungsten project inland from Cairns in north Queensland, has seen its share price rise by almost 30% over the past week, though that improvement needs to be put into perspective as the monetary move is from 0.7c to 0.9c.
King Island Scheelite, a star from an earlier era thanks to its mine on King Island in Bass Strait (scheelite is an ore of tungsten, like wolfram) is also enjoying a revival, adding 1.1c (44%) to 3.6c since earlier this month.
Wolf, however, is the main game for tungsten followers because of the size of its Drakelands project, which has the potential to be one of the world’s major sources of the metal, and the size of the orebody, which is rated as the fourth biggest source of tungsten in the world.
But, that’s when history and location become important factors because while the rolling hills and coastal scenery make Devon a beautiful tourist destination it also adds to the cost of operating a mine and processing plant with one of the recent problems being neighbors complaining about low-frequency noise emanating from rock crushing and screening equipment.
Wolf’s trouble at Drakelands, including stretched finances, continue a long tradition of problems that started in 1917 when the mine was briefly a source of tungsten for artillery in the first world war, until cheaper imported material became available, the war ended, and the mine closed.
During the second world war, the mine was re-opened by the War Ministry, closing again in 1944 for the same reason as the first war, cheaper material from overseas.
Since then a conga-line of mining companies have been lured to Hemerdon/Drakelands to try their hand at tungsten production, including British Tungsten, Hemerdon Mining, Amax Mining, Billiton (before its merger with BHP), Canada Tungsten, Phelps Dodge, North American Tungsten, Aur Resources, and Wolf.
None have been able to successfully unlock the secret of making the mine work as promised, either because of the geology, processing problems, or the unpredictable tungsten market which shifts from shortage to glut depending on what happens in China.
In theory, Drakelands has everything going for it. A strategic metal which is rated as critically important by the British Geological Society, a superb location, a big orebody, and a rising tungsten price.
In practice, the theory has never turned out to be quite as good as it looks.