Northern Territory: More than a pot of gold

The McArthur River mine in the Northern Territory started operating in 1995.

The Northern Territory is emerging as a producer of key minerals that are valuable to the world’s transition to a low carbon economy. TNG and Glencore discuss the role they will play. 

In today’s mining landscape, the popularity of the Northern Territory (NT) as a mining jurisdiction doesn’t come close to its Australian counterparts.

Even though the NT was rife with historical gold mining as early as the 1960s, the growth of its industry was limited for much of the 2010s.

Luckily, this dry spell broke in 2019, when a spike in mining activity in the NT took place and continued into a new decade. 

The NT mining sector has increased its economic contribution to the economy, with the industry’s value rising by a whopping 40 per cent in 2019-20 to a record $7.5 billion, according to Northern Territory Department of Treasury and Finance data.

This surge in activity is developing off the back of the NT’s potential to become one of Australia’s hot spots for critical minerals discoveries. 

When the Australian Government launched the country’s critical mineral strategy last year, several mining projects that were considered crucial to Australia becoming globally competitive in the export market for these commodities were in the NT.

TNG’s Mount Peake titanium-vanadium-iron project, which is around 230 kilometres north of Alice Springs, is one of these projects.

Mount Peake boasts a JORC-compliant resource of 160 million tonnes, making it one of the largest undeveloped vanadium-titanium-iron projects globally, according to the Australian Government.

The project has been awarded major project status by both the Australian and NT governments due to its potential. 

TNG managing director and chief executive Paul Burton says securing the support and involvement of the Australian Government for the development of a global scale critical minerals project like Mount Peake is significant for the company.

“Apart from getting a single-entry point for Commonwealth Government approvals, the company expects that federal major project status will also open doors in terms of project financing, commercial negotiations and engagement with stakeholders as the award of major project status by the Australian Government is a recognition of the strategic significance of the project to Australia,” Burton tells Australian Mining.

TNG managing director and CEO Paul Burton.

The Mount Peake project location also couldn’t be more strategic. TNG plans to build its processing facility to support the Mount Peake critical minerals production in the Middle Arm Precinct in Darwin, which has been recognised as an area of priority investment by the federal government. 

Burton says the need to increase investment in the sector in Australia has been highlighted by the global growing demand for renewable energy and the reliance on the Chinese production of critical minerals. 

“Northern Australia is one of the main areas of investment with $5 billion in funds available under the Northern Australia Infrastructure facility for the development or improvement of infrastructure in the northern region of the country,” Burton says. 

“With the right investments and proper regulations in place, the Northern Territory now has the chance to become Australia’s hub for export of critical minerals produced in-country to overseas markets.”

TNG aims to produce three high purity products: titanium dioxide (TiO2) pigment, vanadium pentoxide (V2O5) and iron ore fines (Fe2O3). 

Their production will come at a time when global demand for the products is anticipated to climb, with that of titanium dioxide pigment potentially jumping from 6.5 million tonnes a year to eight million tonnes a year in 2025.

As for vanadium pentoxide, global demand is estimated at 190,000 tonnes a year, with estimates that the emerging market for vanadium redox flow batteries (VRFB) would consume in excess of 17,000 tonnes of V2O5 in 2029, four times the demand posed by the VRFB market today.

TNG has established an alternative energy strategy and aims to become a commercial supplier of VRFBs as part of its vertical integration strategy for the Mount Peake project. 

The company’s entire production of the three products has been covered by offtake agreements.

TNG’s point of difference lies in the TIVAN technology, which has been designed for the metallurgical treatment of titanomagnetite orebodies.

Thanks to TIVAN, TNG will be able to extract TiO2 pigment, V2O5 and iron ore fines from the magnetite concentrate to produce high-purity products for export from Darwin.

“Darwin will be the first global site for development of a commercial TIVAN processing facility and adjoining TiO2 pigment plant, establishing Darwin as a hub for a high-tech, value-adding processing industry for titanomagnetite orebodies,” Burton says.

The TIVAN process was developed in Australia with environmental concerns in mind by TNG and German-based metallurgical engineering firm, SMS group. They are also assessing the potential use of green hydrogen as a reduction agent in the process. 

This will reduce the required amount of electricity to produce the same amount of hydrogen by electrolysis of water by around 30 per cent.

In this way, TNG is stepping closer to its ambition to achieve a net zero carbon footprint for TIVAN, with a final investment decision for the Mount Peake project due to be made this year. 

TNG’s offtake agreements in a map.

 

NT resident holds firm 

The value hidden underneath NT ground extends beyond the elements considered by the Australian Government as critical minerals.

Australia’s largest zinc operation is located in the NT – Glencore’s McArthur River mine, which is around 970 kilometres south-east of Darwin.

Glencore produced just under 280,000 tonnes of zinc in concentrates and nearly 55,000 tonnes of lead in concentrates in 2020. 

Even though the mine began operations in 1995, it has a long life ahead of it. Its current mine life is predicted to last until 2039, after which Glencore will reprocess tailings until 2048.

A key ingredient to galvanise steel, zinc is found in renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines, batteries and electronics.

Glencore expects zinc’s role in extending the lifecycle of multiple steel-based products means it will play an important part in the transition to a global low carbon economy.

“We estimate that global zinc supply will need to almost double to meet increased demand under the International Energy Agency’s Rapid Transition (1.5-degrees-Celsius) pathway,” a Glencore spokesperson tells Australian Mining. 

“Our approach is to minimise potential impacts of our activities on the environment through environmental stewardship and responsible resource management across our operations.”

The importance of the McArthur River mine is only strengthened by the communities it supports in the NT. 

Glencore employs around 1200 people including contractors and is focussed on recruiting and retaining employees from across the Gulf Region.

The company’s Indigenous Employment Program, for example, has opened the pathway to 23 Indigenous trainees this year.

This adds to Glencore’s permanent Indigenous workforce at McArthur River, which amounts to 264 people, representing a whopping 22 per cent of the entire workforce. Such a rate is more than double the NT mining industry average of 9.4 per cent. 

“We rely on every one of our 1200 people to keep the cogs moving at McArthur River Mining and if 2020 has taught us anything from a risk perspective, recruiting locals is better. However, for us it extends further than that,” Glencore general manager at McArthur River, Steven Rooney, says during a Darwin Mining Club speech in March.

“As a major employer in the Territory we have an obligation to invest in the next generation of workers and make sure skills stay where they are needed here in the Territory.

“As a FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) site, all 1200 of our people play their part in the mine and village running smoothly. From cooks, cleaners, chemists, truck drivers, engineers, plumbers, enviros, security guards and more; we are essentially a small town and with that comes jobs.”

Through the world’s largest zinc and lead resources in the NT, Glencore has built a community that keeps people employed while supporting the world’s transition to a low carbon economy. 

The NT’s richness in minerals has not only brought positive contribution to the local communities and wider economy, but also fulfils the global demand for zinc, lead and to a more limited extent, silver.

The minerals produced in the NT have arguably shifted the state’s reputation to one that is instrumental to fulfilling global ambitions to create a better planet. 

Glencore and TNG are both playing a part in this.  

This story also appears in the May issue of Australian Mining.

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