Egypt’s phosphate (not realizing potential) and critical metals (still an unknown). Oh, and there’s thorium, too
Back in 1969 Soviet geologists took a great deal of interest in two small hills along the Red Sea coast. These had been found to contain niobium, tin, tungsten, lanthanum and gallium. That year the Soviet Union signed an exploration contract.
One of those areas was Abu Dabbab. Only now — some 44 years later — is Abu Dabbab about to be developed. An Australian company Gippsland (ASX:GIP) has just arranged finance from an Egyptian banking consortium and will be producing tin and tantalum. But it has been a terrible struggle: Gippsland bought into the project in 2001.
We know now that Abu Dabbab was explored extensively in the 1970s by the GIREDMET, the Geological Research Institute based in Moscow. In the 1990s the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority joined with Geominera Italiana and there was extensive drilling, with metallurgical test work done in Italy and Moscow, and the Italians even finished a feasibility study. The study included the niobium potential.
So it’s been a long struggle, and that is not over yet.
In the 1960s, phosphates were discovered at Isna in the Nile Valley and these were initially exploited by the Russians, using electricity from the Aswan Dam (built, of course, with money loaned by the Soviet Union. The Russians, incidentally, were not interested in the phosphate for themselves: the product was destined for four of their then satellite states behind the Iron Curtain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria.) It shows, by the way, how the world of phosphate has changed in the past 50 or more years: when the Nile Valley deposits were found, Egypt was described as then being the third largest possessor of phosphate, after Florida and Morocco in that order (and, as for those last two, the boot is well and truly on the other foot, with Morocco now head and shoulders above any contender).
Then in 1999 Egyptian geologists, who had already established the presence of rare earths near Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, found not only ilmenite, rutile, magnetite, and garnet, but also large concentrations of thorium and monazite. Preliminary studies then showed some of the deposits were “extremely rich” [the Egyptian’s term, not mine] in REE minerals.
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Follow-up work published in 2007, using what the Egyptians termed instrumental neutron activation analysis of these same granites, revealed the presence of lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, samarium, europium, ytterbium and lutetium.
A search finds few subsequent mentions of this exploration and analysis. But it looks at least like Gippsland is going to get tin production going, followed by tantalum. But clearly Egypt does have some considerable potential for rare earth and critical metals — we simply don’t know when, especially with the continuing instability in the country.
According to the U.S. Geological Society, the largest miner, El Nasr Mining, produced 4.2 million tonnes of phosphate rock in 2011, compared with 2.9 million tonnes the previous year. Production came from three mines: East Sebaya, West Sebaya and Red Sea. The phosphate was exported through two Red Sea ports.
Then there’s the Abu Tartour project, which is a saga in itself. Indeed, the Russians were interested in that, too. The production from Abu Tartour, 650km south of Cairo, has been a real on and off affair. An article published in 2011 by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt described as a failure the then three-year-old attempt to revive the mining operation. The mineralisation is said to extend over 1,200 sq km with an average seam thickness of 3.5 metres. But the exploration licence was limited to an area of just 14.5 sq km.
While under the control of the Ministry of Industry for 30 years, Abu Tartour was plagued with technical and managerial challenges and produced a total of only 300,000 tons of rock phosphate in that entire period, according to one analysis.
Now the deposit is under the control of Phosphate Misr Company, which took over in 2009, and plans to get production up to 5 million tonnes a year. This year the company signed a $1.7 billion deal with Abu Qir Fertilizers Company to produce phosphate fertilizers.
We’ll just have to hope that Egypt can stabilise sufficiently to see this project take shape — and then, perhaps, someone can take a serious look at the rare earths and thorium.
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