Australia: the emerging scandium powerhouse
Nature has been kind to the Australian state of New South Wales, says George Putnam. Nowhere else on the planet has it bestowed such high grades (over 400 parts per million) of scandium. Putnam heads Scandium International Mining Corp (TSX:SCY) which has the Nyngan project in that state. The company believes the NSW lateritic clay belt represents a recent, game-changing discovery of scandium at grades approximately four times the grades of existing resources. This makes it possible to run a mine with production costs under $700/kg at a time when the product would fetch about $2,000/kg on the market.
And here’s another big plus: this scandium is not in either Russia or China, the present sources of the metal. Having a reliable supply from a First World country is a second game-changer.
There’s yet another positive factor: Scandium International is not the only scandium player in this Australian state, a fact that Putnam thinks is just great. He argues that a company such as Airbus is not going to retool its plant to make 400 or so A320 airliners with a scandium-aluminium alloy if it has only one source of the scandium and can be held to ransom by a monopolistic supplier. So it’s the more, the merrier he says.
Putnam is in Australia this week in relation to his company’s scandium project. (He does know the country: he once lived in Melbourne while being chief financial officer for the manganese business of BHP Billiton).
So let me bring InvestorIntel readers up to speed on NSW, the potential new world power in scandium.
Scandium International has the Nyngan project near the small NSW settlement of that name. It aims to be the first company to achieve production from a primary scandium mine (the present supply coming as a by-product from uranium and iron ore mines in Ukraine, the Bayan Obo rare earth mine in China and apatite mines in Russia).
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The company is working on its definitive feasibility study and expects to begin production in 2017.
The scandium story has been slowly creeping up on Australian miners, and is still not widely known. I have checked my files and find that I wrote a newspaper report way back in 1997 saying that a small junior called Jervois Mining (ASX:JRV) had found scandium near the NSW city of Port Macquarie. Nothing much was to come of this but then that company came across scandium at Nyngan, and that led to a joint venture with what is now known as Scandium International. That JV has since been dissolved and the Canadian company is the sole owner.
The appeal of scandium is that just small amounts added to aluminium alloys produce lighter, stronger, more heat-resistant end-products, from baseball bats to jet fighters.
Putnam is in agreement with others in the scandium business that if you provide reliable supplies of scandium, they (the end-users) will come (and develop other products containing the metal). At present it is estimated world supply is no greater than 15 tonnes. So that’s why Airbus and other big companies cannot take a risk on there being enough scandium available. The mines of NSW could change that situation.
In Putnam’s view, another leading contender in the state is CleanTeQ (ASX:CLQ). It has a scandium project at Syerston, NSW. Last week that company reported the wet commissioning of its scandium recovery pilot plant had been completed and was now treating the first batch of scandium ore. While SCY is working at its definitive study, CLQ in May completed its scoping study. The company has a collaboration agreement with Airbus.
Syerston has passed through a number of hands including Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines, mostly with a focus on laterite nickel. As CleanTeQ says, “throughout the history of the project the scandium occurrences in the drilling results remained little more than a geological curiosity”. Robert Friedland’s Ivanhoe sold the project to CLQ last year.
Then there is Platina Resources (ASX:PGM) with its Owendale platinum-scandium project. The last report we heard was that negotiations were continuing with China’s Honfine Oriental Zirconium for the supply of 15 tonnes a year of scandium oxide, and there were talks with other parties, including European ones. There are 9,100 contained tonnes of scandium at Owendale.
And Jervois is still in the game with its own NSW project, which it describes as the largest in NSW “and probably the world” with 2.67 million tonnes grading at 435ppm scandium.
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