Northern Minerals Ltd (ASX:NTU) is on-track with plans to ramp-up the restart of operations at Browns Range Heavy Rare Earth Project in the Kimberley region of WA after the resumption of research and development test-work in August.
R&D test-work recommenced with the partial restart of operations after being disrupted for five months due to Commonwealth biosecurity measures in response to COVID-19, which required the plant to be placed into care and maintenance.
In a company activity update, chief executive officer Mark Tory said Northern Minerals planned to restart the hydrometallurgical plant test-work in the December quarter as part of a three-year pilot assessment of the economic and technical feasibility of a commercial, larger-scale development at Browns Range extracting rare earths from hard rock xenotime ore.
Northern Minerals is also finalising plans for an aggressive exploration program to drill around 16,500 metres across its Browns Range tenements before the end of June 2021.
The company has allocated a budget of up $5 million for the program in financial year 2021 and anticipates drill rigs being mobilised to site in October to test greenfields targets across the tenement as well as follow-up on previous drilling at Dazzler and Banshee deposits.
Exploration is focused on increasing the mineral resource and the life of mine potential at Browns Range.
These results, along with the findings from pilot plant test-work, will feed into a new feasibility study to evaluate the potential for a commercial, larger-scale heavy rare earths production project in the Kimberley.
Seeking Dazzler lookalikes
Tory said: “This significant commitment to exploration in the next 12 months will underpin the company’s ongoing ambition to realise the potential of Browns Range beyond the Pilot Plant Project, which if successful would create significantly greater opportunities for the company, the State and Australia in the global context of producing these critical, strategic minerals within our borders.”
Northern Minerals holds 2,381 square kilometres of tenements in the Browns Range Dome geological feature.
He continued: “Our exploration team has identified numerous high-priority targets, buoyed by the recent discovery at Dazzler that confirmed the prospectivity of the area and is specifically targeting mineralisation associated with the unconformity.
“Finding Dazzler lookalikes will be a priority for exploration for the next 12 months, as its grades are up to 3-times the total Browns Range resource grade.
“If we can find a few more of these it will help us realise the current strategy to increase mine life to 20-plus years.”
On August 24 the company reached a settlement agreement with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) on its R&D claims for the financial years ending June 30 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Northern Minerals’ updated indicative debt position as at August 31 comprised of the liabilities totalled $6.1 million, representing less than a third of the $19.2 million outstanding debt when Northern Minerals announced a reduction in its debt to Sinosteel on June 16, 2020.
Tory said: “Northern Minerals strengthened balance sheet will enable us to invest in exploration as well as complete our Pilot Plant test-work program, including the ore sorting work, to be fully informed for the planned commercial feasibility study on the full-scale mining and processing operation.
“Our aim is to further strengthen our balance sheet and be debt-free by the end of 2020.”
Browns Range has produced a mixed heavy rare earth carbonate for export to offtake partners for further processing.
Processing this carbonate material into individual separated oxides (for example dysprosium oxide or terbium oxide) currently occurs predominantly in China.
With the aim of developing an alternative supply chain for heavy rare earth oxides, Northern Minerals continues to progress studies into separation technologies most suited to separating the material produced at Browns Range.
The K-Tech scoping study is progressing well with test-work advancing at that company’s facilities in Florida, USA, albeit slower than planned due to the constraints associated with COVID-19.
This work will result in development of a CIX/CIC process flowsheet with associated capital and operating cost estimates.
Tory added: “If we can prove-up the economics of downstream separation of our mixed heavy rare earth carbonate to individual oxides, it will be an important step in the development of an alternative supply chain for heavy rare earth oxides and will significantly increase both the value of the products we are producing as well as the number of potential end-customers we can target for off-take agreements.”