Australia's "forgotten" rare earths

There’s about 10 million contained tonnes of rare earths lying in just one mine in Australia – but whether they will ever extracted is in doubt.

Welcome to Australia’s forgotten rare earth deposits.

Memories were jogged by the recently issued 96-page US Geological Survey report,The Principle Rare Earth Elements Deposits of the United States. The main themes have now been widely discussed, but on page 20 there’s a fascinating list of the main deposits outside the US.

There it is: Olympic Dam in the state of South Australia. Two billion tonnes of ore containing rare earth elements, and 10 million contained tonnes. There, too, is the grade: 0.5 per cent.

The mine is now owned by BHP Billiton (ASX:BHP) and, so we believe, there is absolutely no intention of doing anything about the rare earth oxides. As someone who knows the deposit explained, why would a company like BHP which is trying to dominate several large industries – iron ore, coal and now potash – want with getting involved in a small industry. A $100 million investment in the capacity of Olympic Dam would, the argument goes, provide a much greater return if spent on the uranium and copper and gold at this mine than it ever would on rare earths. Olympic Dam is the world’s largest known uranium deposit.

The Adelaide-based Department of Primary Industry and Resources of South Australia (PIRSA) provides some scant detail about the rare earths at Olympic Dam. It said the assays at the deposit of 0.3 per cent lanthanum and 0.2 per cent cerium are common.

But PIRSA also shows there’s another forgotten source of rare earths in that state. At Port Pirie, where uranium from the Radium Hill mine was processed between 1954 and 1961, there’s an estimated 1500 tonnes of rare earth oxides in the tailings that have been left there. Some of the grades: 3 per cent scandium, 38 per cent lanthanum and 3.3 per cent dysprosium.

There’s another Australian deposit with a measured resource (and a much larger indicated and inferred figure) that has disappeared from view. It’s called Brockman and has been in limbo since its owner, iron ore producer Aztec Resources, was taken over in 2007 by another iron ore producer, Mount Gibson Iron (ASX:MGX). The grades are low there, too, but don’t be surprised if Mount Gibson looks to try and find a buyer.

A project that has dropped from view over the past year is Sophie Downs in Western Australia, 15km north of Brockman. Metminco (ASX:MNC) did some exploration there but has since dropped the ground as it moves to concentrate on its South American copper, gold and molybdenum interests. Its sampling produced shows of niobium, cerium, lanthanum, dysprosium, neodymium and praseodymium. The company at the time described it work as “encouraging early results” but, in 2009, the mention of rare earth elements failed to elicit any investor attention. The grades were low but, in the present climate, some other company may jump at the chance to pick up the ground; it would get a bounce in its share price just by recycling Metminco‘s sampling .

Three years ago, when uranium hit $US138 a pound, Australian companies scoured the continent for forgotten finds made in the 1960s and 1970s, before the uranium price collapsed. No doubt there are plenty of present day players now combing old rare earth data.

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