By Peter Roberts
Perth minerals producer Iluka Resources is pressing ahead with its plans to process rare earths on Australian shores, capturing more value-adding of these critical metals for the local economy.
The company’s latest update shows that all primary environmental approvals have been secured for its project at Eneabba north of Perth.
The company has made a final investment decision to proceed with what is called Eneabba Phase 3, earthworks have begun and engineering services firm Fluor Australia is progressing front end engineering and design.
Processing Iluka’s one million tonne stockpile of mine wastes created thorough processing mineral sands for zircon was central to the Coalition government’s $2 billion Critical Minerals Finance facility.
Administered by Export Finance Australia, Ikula was awarded the lions share of funding – a $1.2 billion non-recourse loan to build a rare-earth refinery, with the company earmarking $200 million for the project.
The refinery marks a step change of Australia’s involvement in a value chain which produces rare metals critical to the production of permanent magnets and hence numerous high technology and defence products.
Iluka is only the flagship of an Australian rare earths sector is booming, driven by our governments and the eagerness of consuming nations to diversify sources of supply for metals such as neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium away from China.
But the local sector is characterised by very small companies that have no clear path to metals production, or even finance to develop their resources.
The arrival of a serious mining player in Iluka on the scene, and the bold backing of the federal government, should see Australia’s role in rare metals supply become critical to western consumers.
While Australia’s biggest current producer, Lynas Rare Earths, is the biggest supplier outside China, it unfortunately chose to site its metals production facilities in Malaysia.
The fact it is increasing processing locally with a new facility under construction in Kalgoorlie is purely the result of the Malaysian government and public becoming concerned at the production of radioactive wastes as a by product of processing.
These processes are being onshored to Australia.
The only other local rare metals producer, Australian Strategic Materials took a similar course, siting its metals plant which is now in production in Korea.
This was because its Korean backers were keen to capture and onshore a part of the rare earths value-chain.
In Australia there are several other significant potential producers:
Picture: Iluka Resources/Eneabba