Vanadium future looks bright for Australia

Multicom Resources’ St Elmo site is the first vanadium project in Queensland to receive licence approval.

Despite a different approach to the extraction process, Multicom Resources and Australian Vanadium are both energised by the potential of the critical minerals sector as they pursue a common goal – vanadium. 

Governments across Australia, at both a federal and state level, have recognised the importance of the critical minerals sector to the nation.

With the recent industry focus on sustainability and electrification, critical minerals such as vanadium have risen in prominence.

Vanadium is currently used in high-strength, low-alloy steel and is emerging as a critical battery storage commodity for its use in vanadium redox flow batteries, ideally suited to large, grid scale storage solutions.

It is one of the new economy minerals that are used in advanced and renewable energy technologies.

However, one of the issues with companies successfully mining the mineral comes in the expense of the extraction process against its market value.

In opposite corners of Australia, two companies are quietly moving forward with their respective vanadium operations.

In September, Multicom Resources’ $250 million Saint Elmo operation in North West Queensland was given the go-ahead to begin construction next year. It is the first vanadium mine in the state to receive licence approval.

In Western Australia’s Mid West region, Australian Vanadium is progressing smoothly with its operations near the town of Meekatharra.

In July, Australian Vanadium received $3.9 million in federal funding to fast-track manufacturing of large-scale vanadium redox flow battery systems that can be used to support residential power grids, or in off-grid settings such as mining, agriculture and remote communities.

Despite both companies sharing the common goal of extracting vanadium, each operation is going about it in a different way.

Multicom Resources chief executive officer Shaun McCarthy says vanadium is one of the higher abundance minerals globally within the Earth’s crust.

Australian Vanadium is extracting the mineral from magnetite.

However, like a lot of these critical minerals, the vanadium concentration within the ground makes it quite difficult to extract economically.

“What Multicom is looking at doing is extracting vanadium from a different orebody and what we have is a sedimentary rock deposit, so the orebody that we are mining is the old seabed from when the North West region of Queensland used to be a couple of hundred metres at the bottom of the ocean,” McCarthy says.

“Over time there has been an increased concentration of vanadium in that geological structure that was the bottom of the seabed, so that means the sedimentary rock that we are looking at extracting the vanadium from is basically at the surface.

“So it is a very low-impact operation in that we don’t have to dig a great big open pit that may go down several hundred metres, we can take it off the surface in a strip mining formation.”

McCarthy says there are several primary producing assets where they mine the magnetite primarily for the vanadium extraction and not so much for the iron ore, which is considered the more traditional route for a pure-plate vanadium project.

“While we do have a lower grade deposit, so the amount of vanadium in concentration in that orebody is lower than you might see in the pure-play magnetite deposits, but because it can be so cheaply mined, and because we can so readily upgrade the vanadium into a concentrate, we can take that from an approximate 0.3 per cent head grade up to maybe 1.5 per cent or greater concentrate grades,” McCarthy says.

“That alleviates the cost implications for the downstream hydrometallurgical process that then extracts the vanadium and purifies it into a final product.”

Australian Vanadium managing director Vincent Algar says there are currently three primary vanadium companies in the world – one in Brazil and two in South Africa.

“Those three mines have one thing in common, they all have the same deposit type as we do at Australian Vanadium and they all have a grade of around one per cent in the ground, which is the same as what we have,” Algar says.

“Our grade over the period of our mine life is at around 1.1 per cent, so that gives me confidence that the difference between Australian Vanadium and other deposits is the strength of the grade.

“We have a high grade of vanadium in the ore which means we have a high yield of vanadium through to the concentration process.”

Algar says the extraction methods Australian Vanadium is following leads to a higher recovery process of the vanadium.

“Our process is pyrometallurgical, it is primarily a roast, so we put the magnetite into the roaster and when it comes out the magnetite has turned to hematite, and then out the back the vanadium becomes soluble in the presence of sodium carbonate,” Algar says.

“Then we take it out the back, put it in a tank of water and all the vanadium goes into the water, and then we take the remaining iron ore and we sell it.”

Both Australian Vanadium and Multicom have spent years working on feasibility studies and making sure environmental and landowner agreements have been addressed.

McCarthy says mine construction at St Elmo is planned to start in 2022, supporting 250 jobs at peak, with first production forecast for late 2023.

Australian Vanadium has a 25-year mine life, with the aim to produce about five per cent of the world market for vanadium.

The Australian Vanadium
site near Meekatharra.

Algar says the global vanadium market is about 110,000 tonnes of metal equivalent every year and of that around 60 per cent is produced and consumed in China’s steel industry.

However, both McCarthy and Algar say they are excited at the prospect of the resource being identified as part of the critical minerals sector.

“We got into vanadium before the critical minerals tagline really came to prominence,” McCarthy says.

“We are seeing that critical mineral space heat up both from the demand side, where there is a genuine requirement for more of these products to come to market, but also from a general interest point of view, which includes the Australian Government and other regions around the world in trying to secure the supply chain for various end uses.

“We are seeing some of those strategies, which have been in place for a couple of years globally, are starting to hit their straps with pressure coming to companies like Multicom and others in the critical minerals space to move quickly through the necessary processes to bring new projects forward.”

Algar says it is an exciting time for Australian Vanadium, with the company planning to minimise operational costs by overtaking crushing, milling and beneficiation of vanadium bearing magnetite ore at its mine site, before then transporting the resulting concentrate to its processing plant for final refinement.

“If the demand for vanadium continues on in the steel market and then continues to grow heavily in the battery market, then you have more demand than there can be supply, which should keep prices at a relatively high level,” Algar says. 

“This then means the guys in Queensland can get up, we can get up, and Australia can easily become one of the largest suppliers of vanadium to the world market outside of China.

“A global market of 110,000 tonnes is still very small, but it carries a massive weight in terms of its use and what its impact can be.”

McCarthy believes the growing critical minerals market has the potential to support several prospects around the country.

“It also means we are not competing for a limited market share and we are not necessarily looking to displace existing markets,” McCarthy says.

“We do think Australia is going to be looked at quite favourably as a supplier of choice in the long run for some of these critical minerals so we are certainly in the prime position in respect to that.”

This article also features in the December edition of Australian Mining.

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