Picture a jar of marbles.
The white ones are waste minerals — the rocks that aren’t being mined for. The red marbles are rare earths — the kind that sits in cellphones and solar panels.
Geoff Atkins, managing director of Australia’s Cheetah Resources, says his company’s pitch is simple: a reliable streamlined approach of picking the red marbles from the white ones with as few emissions as possible.
“The idea is effectively that nothing goes to waste,” said Atkins, in Yellowknife recently.
Announced in June, a demonstration of the idea is slated to roll out at the company’s Nechalacho project at Thor Lake near Lutsel K’e next summer, or the one after. It’s the result of a definitive agreement between Cheetah and Canadian firm Avalon Advanced Materials.
Previous to that, from 2008 to 2013, Avalon dropped a significant investment on a feasibility study of the area. Ottawa approved the project in 2013 but prices fell too low and the project was sidelined in 2014.
In February, Cheetah spent $5 million on near-surface rights, down to roughly 100 metres in two areas to be developed within the next few years. This demonstration phase is expected to last two to three years before the company plans to expand to its commercial phase.
Currently, the company is working through the regulatory framework to launch the project. Atkins spoke highly of the regulatory experience in NWT, calling it transparent and supportive, which contrasts with commonly heard industry concerns that the territory isn’t sufficiently open for businesses.
He’s optimistic: lower environmental impacts tends to ease the stress of the timelines. For example, the project’s sorter is in a 40-foot shipping container that sits on concrete pads, which Atkins says reduces its environmental disturbance.
Cheetah avoids most of the chemicals typically associated with rare earths projects, aiming for a simpler approach with a lower environmental impact. It doesn’t use reagents or processed water.
The physical operation involves the minerals being crushed, and dropped onto a conveyor belt where x-ray technology sorts the rare earths from the other rocks, blows a jet of air to separate them, and leaves them for further processing. Non-rare earth rocks can be stockpiled for site infrastructure, he said.
“Everyone considers mining as you need chemicals, you need a lot of power. You need tailings stands, with a lot of water where all the waste products go, which have to be managed over long term,” he said.
“What we’re doing is saying … is all we’re going to do is take some rock (and) we’ll crush it,” he said, explaining it’s basically the same as picking red rocks from a pile of gravel while leaving the white rocks.
The only water the operation will use is for dust control and potable water for staff, he said.
“Any waste you can take out at the front, will reduce your footprint,” added Atkins.
The project’s simpler and smaller approach is unusual in an industry that typically prizes big projects.
Atkins said the first question in mining is typically how to increase a project’s profit and size, which he describes as “a trap a lot of companies have fallen into, especially in rare earths.”
That increases the risks, he said.
“If you’re a small company and you’re trying to raise a billion dollars, that’s a very difficult proposition.”
After starting in rare earths in 2007, he said he spent a large amount of time discussing why so many projects were struggling to get off the ground.
(In 2011, industry analyst Jack Lifton of consultant agency Technology Metals Research, said less than four per cent of non-Chinese rare earth projects would turn a profit, owed largely to their high processing costs and required expertise.)
In that sort of wider market, Atkins was convinced to take a different approach.
He said Cheetah is aiming to raise as little money as possible and get into operations as quickly as it can. Cheetah started as a private company, which left interested investors to support it. He described the company as a “slower burn” that relied on a longer term strategy.
“People can over complicate things,” he said. “I’m not drawn to, ‘I have to have a billion-dollar project.’
“I like small. I like simple. If you’re simple, it reduces your risk. It reduces your complexity, which increases the likelihood of success.”