Water find may aid rare earth processing north of Alice

Arafura Resources is looking at relocating more of its processing for the Nolans Rare Earths Project close to the mine site (pictured) near Aileron, 135 km north of Alice Springs.
The company had planned to do initial washing, crushing and concentrating of the ore at the Nolans Bore, then rail the concentrate to a chemical processing plant at Whyalla in South Australia.
It is now looking to do the intermediate – or initial chemical – processing close to the mine site, achieving “major savings in transport and logistics costs because we no longer need to transport bulk materials,” says Chief Executive Officer Chris Tonkin.

This will help to cope with sharply rising costs of building a processing plant coinciding with a sharp decline in rare earth prices.

Mr Tonkin said a key factor in the decision to relocate intermediate processing to Central Australia was the availability of water.
“We engaged Centerprise – a subsidiary of Alice Springs-based Centrefarm – to help design an exploratory drilling program near the mine.

“This appears to have been successful and we believe we have found a previously unknown aquifer south of the mine.
“This means we may no longer be reliant on the Ti Tree Basin, which supplies nearby horticultural projects, pastoralists and drinking water, and has the added bonus of potentially providing new bore water on dry sections of nearby pastoral properties.”

Mr Tonkin says the $1 billion project has grown into $2 billion project.

The processing near Aileron will remove “the radioactive elements uranium and thorium from the concentrate, leaving only a purified rare earths intermediate product to be transported and further refined.

“So the proposed changes eliminate the need to transport these radioelements. They will now be managed close to the mine site as part of the operation’s long-term tailings management program,” he said.
Mr Tonkin said Arafura’s technical team were working closely with the company’s main shareholder and strategic partner, ECE (East China Mineral Exploration and Development Bureau), to review all work done to date and draw on Chinese rare earths expertise to improve processing, with a key focus on reducing costs.
Arafura is still considering where the final chemical processing – or rare earths separation – would take place, as part of this major review of all aspects of the project.
“We will retain our interest in the site at Whyalla until we make a final decision on the extent of plant relocation. The key drivers for this decision will be cost and access to key raw materials such as hydrochloric acid,” he said.
“We have set an achievable goal of getting project costs down by between $500 million and $1 billion, together with substantially reduced operating costs,” he said.
“The Northern Territory Government is obviously pleased to get more of the project in Central Australia because of the jobs and business opportunities this will generate.

“We have in-principle support from the Minister for Mines and Energy for our plans,” Mr Tonkin said.

(Photo courtesy Arafura Resources.)

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