Rare earths expert Alastair Neill on Vital Metals
“Overall Vital appears well on the way to producing commercial quantities of rare earth concentrate, a first in Canada.” — Alastair Neill, President, Critical Minerals Institute
Vital Metals Limited (ASX: VML | OTCQB: VTMXF) is an Australian listed company whose subsidiary, Cheetah Resources, is developing the Nechalacho project in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The deposit was previously owned by Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. (TSX: AVL | OTCQB: AVLNF), and they sold the rights in 2019 to Cheetah for the material 150 meters above sea level. Avalon retained the rights to the basal zone deposit which is underground. The deposit is reported to have 94.7 million tonnes at 1.46% REO (0.1% Nd/Pr cutoff). The mineral hosting the rare earths is bastnaesite, which is good as this mineral has been processing successfully for many years.
Vital raised A$45 million recently through a targeted share placement at A$0.04 per share. According to their press release the funds will be used for:
- Finalisation of construction activities and undertake commissioning, ramp-up and operations at its Rare Earth Extraction Facility in Saskatoon, which will produce a rare earth carbonate product
- Accelerated development of Tardiff deposit at Nechalacho, Canada, including mining studies
A strong balance sheet for ongoing working capital requirements
This project is the most advanced rare earth project currently in Canada. The initial focus is the North T zone which has a resource of 101,000 metric tonnes at 9.01% contained Total Rare Earth Oxides (TREO). Based on tests run at their Saskatoon rare earth extraction plant they can get a 75% recovery to produce a 43.7% concentrate. Based on this, the deposit would produce 6,825 metric tonnes of TREO which would contain 1,600 tonnes of Neodymium (Nd) and Praseodymium (Pr). Tests have been done using X-ray Transmission (XRT) to sort the ore as the ore is hosted in quartz, which is white, and the rare earth mineral which is red. This is a simple way to upgrade the TREO content at site.
There is an offtake agreement with REEtec, a Norwegian company that is developing a new rare earth separation process. The agreement is for Vital to deliver 1,000 tonnes per year (TPY) of TREO (excluding Cerium (Ce)). Based on that Ce will be eliminated before shipping the concentrate to Norway. This is a step that has been done before by Molycorp in the 1980s. It reduces the material handling by 50% and obviously the size of downstream processing equipment. The North T zone will provide 3,400 of the 5,000 tonnes which means Cheetah will have to open the Basal zone to meet the balance of the supply contract.
Looking at today’s prices on Shanghai Metal Market (SMM) the separated value of this contract is over US$286 million. Assuming Vital gets 1/3 of the value for the concentrate this would produce revenues of over US$95 million of which US$92 million would come from Nd/Pr. Details of the agreement are not revealed so REEtec may be a toll arrangement which could produce more revenue for Vital though I expect the initial target would be to sell La, Nd and Pr in Europe as there are customers in Europe.
Interestingly the extraction plant is located beside the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) which has announced that they will be building a rare earth separation facility to process monazite by 2024. SRC has two rare earth experts from China on staff. SRC is also putting in an Nd/Pr metal facility which takes the oxide to the next level in the supply chain.
In addition to the Nechalacho project, Vital has a project in Tanzania called Wigu Hill. Vital has signed a project development and option agreement with Montero Mining & Exploration Ltd. (TSXV: MON), to acquire and develop the Wigu Hill project. The Wigu Hill project is a light rare earth element deposit and consists of a large carbonite complex with bastnaesite mineralization with a NI 43-101 Inferred resource estimate of 3.3Mt at 2.6% light REOs. This is also a bastnaesite mineral.
Overall Vital appears well on the way to producing commercial quantities of rare earth concentrate, a first in Canada. Questions that do need to be answered are what are the costs of operating an open pit mine in Northern Canada and the costs to transport material to Saskatoon.