On Friday, February 5, I flew from Cape Town in a small plane, to Springbok, Northern Cape Province, Republic of South Africa, to visit a privately-owned rare earth exploration site there. I was impressed by two aspects of the deposits that the owners had discovered so far:
- The grades presented were as high as 21%, and
- the proportions of high atomic-numbered, so-called “heavy,” rare earths, such as dysprosium, terbium, and europium were high enough to make these ore bodies, if they are proved to be extensive, valuable enough to bring them into contention, even at current prices, as economically developable today as concentrate producing mines.
The next afternoon, Saturday, February 6, I was walking down the street that runs along a beautiful beach, Camp’s Beach, west of the Cape Town waterfront when I spotted the Chairman, President, and in- house publicist for Canada’s Great Western Minerals Group (GWMG) sitting in a sidewalk café drinking what I can only assume was sarsaparilla, since it was only 1:00 PM, local time. GWMG had invited me to visit their rare earth property also in the Springbok area at a place called Steenkampskraal, but I was unable to go as I had already agreed to go to the other site when the GWMG invitation was proffered.
I did agree to go to Steenkampskraal in the near future on my next trip to South Africa, and I am looking forward to that visit. Gary Billingsley, the chairman and founder of GWMG, who himself is a geologist , has in my opinion been very good at finding rare earth deposits of excellent potential for commercial development. Gary is also the originator of the “mine to market” strategy for rare earths, which today is recognized as the “must-do” paradigm for any low-volume, high-value technology metal producer, because most often it is only when you vertically add downstream value to a rare metal mining operation that you can achieve enough margin to make the return on the investment in the extended value chain attractive to private capital.
I was surprised to learn from Gary that Steenkampskraal had previously and fairly recently been placed in development by its then owner/operator, South Africa’s Rareco, in the late 1990s and then, like Molycorp, it had become uneconomical because of aggressive Chinese pricing.
Steenkampskraal was developed originally by Anglo-American in the 1950s as a thorium mine, to supply the United Kingdom and the USA with thorium for reactor fuel at a time when the decision had not yet been made whether to go with uranium or thorium for civilian nuclear reactors. The mine shut down new production in 1962 but I was told that it still retains its status as a legal repository for thorium; perhaps the only privately owned such facility in the world. Gary said that he is in negotiation with existing refiners to build a separation plant at or near the Steenkampskraal site, and that although its first priority would be to be designed to process ore from Steenkampskraal, he thought it could be developed as a contract processor also, because of its unique attribute of being able to legally store thorium removed during rare earth ore separating processes.
But the most important aspect of Steenkampskraal is its ore grades. If you look on the GWMG web site you will see the data for the grades, weights, and elemental distributions on the Steenkampskraal ores discovered so far. In addition to that data I was told there have been examined monazite samples assaying at 80% which present as net 48% TREOs. Gary believes that this result is not from an anomolous one time grab sample, but from a substantial body of ore. Such material would be worth as much as $60/kg in concentrate; this is 6 times the values today, theoretically, for other better-known lower atomic-numbered (light) rare earth deposits in Australia and the USA, and 3 times the average values previously stated for high atomic number-enriched rare earth deposits from southern Africa. Even without factoring in the extremes of concentrate value, there is still a greater likelihood of a South African deposit being able, within two or two and a half years, to produce a per kg value high enough to justify investment, than at any other place in the non-Chinese world
GWMG’s web site has quite a bit of data on Steenkampskraal, but Canadian security regulations do not leave much latitude for speculation. I can say though, that I think that the Northern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa is the best hope in the world for a source in the very near term of high atomic-numbered rare earths to replace the rapidly diminishing Chinese ionic clay sources. By restarting and redirecting the purpose of Steenkampskraal GWMG may well be, as I said in San Francisco in December, the winner of the horse race to be the first outside of China to produce commercial quantities of high atomic numbered rare earths.
GWMG is uniquely situated to gain the most value by winning the horse race, because it is the only truly vertically-integrated rare earth producer. Instead of needing to market its separated rare earths it would be able to use them as feed for its Less Common Metals wholly-owned subsidiary in the UK and the US, where if GWMG also refined the separated rare earths to pure metals, they would be made into permanent magnet alloys, which it makes now from Chinese high purity rare earth metals. The customers of LCM form permanent magnets for various uses from the powdered goods they buy from LCM.
With the known ore bodies at Steenkampskraal, GWMG and LCM would be independent of outside raw material suppliers for 14 years at current capacities. If there were additional resources discovered on the Steenkampskraal property and/or if Canadian resources at Douglas and Benjamin Rivers in Saskatchewan were developed during those 14 years, GWMG would become a player in the global raw material supply industry. If, as I think, Avalon Rare Metals comes into production of total rare earths by 2014-15, then South Africa and Canada will join China as dominant players in the rare earth space. At the moment I see Avalon and GWMG possibly emerging by mid-decade to make Canada the dominant rare earth producer outside of China, even if it isn’t then the largest such non-Chinese producing nation in terms of tonnage, because Canada will be able to produce the total resource – but there is tremendous potential for South Africa as Canadians have already realized. There’s a horse race to produce a total rare earths supply outside of China. The long term winner is Avalon Rare Metals, and in the near term the winner will be Great Western Minerals Group. In the long term GWMG will be able to supply its own upstream needs.
In the long run the supply base for rare earths will surely be and must become global but may, in my opinion, never be sufficient to keep up with the growth of Asia’s economies. Even very good projects with very long time lines in places like Greenland and Viet Nam and Russia, will be as much as a decade and a half in development. In the near term the race will go to those already under development with the broadest and most comprehensive range of rare earths. These are Canadian and South African operations. In the US the broadest range of rare earths is held by US Rare Earths, Inc., a privately held junior for which I consult. It is today America’s only hope for self-sufficiency in total rare earths; it would be best developed as a balancing resource adjunct to Molycorp Mineral’s Mountain Pass operation but even on its own, US Rare Earths could conceivably supply the US with its current needs for total rare earths for a period of about 20 years at contemplated full production. Note that in contrast, Molycorp could supply the entire world with the lower atomic numbered rare earths indefinitely just from its Mountain Pass deposit. The problem for US self-sufficency is that Molycorp is ready to start and US Rare Earths is 5 to 10 years from production, but for the domestic concerns of the US with regard to making its civilian and military industries safe from supply interruptions, even this time scale may well be appealing because it is critical and thus mandatory.
The USGS predicted 20 years ago, that South Africa would become the world’s major player in rare earths production. Right at that same time, China pulled out all of the stops to developing the production of rare earths in its Bayan Obo region of Inner Mongolia. By the end of the century, China dominated the rare earth production space. But Chinese zeal to create jobs in China did not contemplate the realities of the market or of mining engineering. The market growth has now overwhelmed China’s ability to maintain and expand production, with regard to continuous exploration, continuous improvement in refining, and maintenance of peak efficiency while obeying environmental regulations and following environmental common sense. The Chinese government recognizes these issues and is moving to consolidate rare earth mining to achieve efficiencies and environmental control. This must mean a temporary slowdown in production as any consolidation and restructuring means. We can be certain of only one thing: China’s first priority is its own economy. It is therefore entirely our fault if we dawdle while there is a serious threat of supply interruption.
I personally think, based on data, that the sleeping giant of global rare earths has probably already been discovered and its development is underway, but it may take a while to come to large scale production. I do not wish to mention which of the above non-Chinese rare earth ventures I am speaking of at this point. The race to avoid a supply interruption crisis is well in hand. I don’t know if a rare earth supply gap, especially of the high atomic numbered (heavy) rare earths can be avoided due to the long development times needed even for mines that are in development. But I now think that 2015 will mark a turning point in global rare earth supply dynamics.
Canada and South Africa are excellent places to seek out investments in the future of the rare earth supply. I guarantee that the Chinese already know this.