First heavy rare earths mine in Australia gets pilot plant approved 

Australia is a step closer towards developing its very first heavy rare earths mine after a state government approved a pilot processing plant for a rare earths deposit that straddles the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

The Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) green-lighted the Browns Range Pilot Plant Project Management Plan earlier this month.

The 60,000-tonnes per annum pilot plant will produce a mix of rare earth oxides, including dysprosium, a heavy rare earth element used to make industrial magnets that are employed in wind turbines and electric vehicles, for example. Production from the pilot plant will represent about 10 percent of the mine's proposed output. Northern Minerals (ASX:NTU) plans to operate the plant for three years, at which point a decision will be made whether to build a full-scale processing facility. Mining to feed the pilot plant is expected to start next year.

Browns Range would be the first major mine outside China to process heavy rare earths, which generally command a higher price than light rare earth oxides. Lynas Corp's (ASX:LYC) Mount Weld rare earths mine in Australia hosts the Central Lanthanide Deposit (CLD) which, while considered high-grade, contains mostly light rare earth elements, according to a project page. The undeveloped Duncan deposit at Mount Weld hosts heavy rare earth mineralization, says Lynas.

While the pilot plant has yet to receive financing, Northern Minerals got a AUD$30-million boost last month from a Chinese investor. Huatai Mining, the Australian investment arm of Chinese coal producer Shandong Taizhong Energy, committed the funds in exchange for a 31 percent interest in Northern Minerals. The equity injection will be put towards mine construction.

"This approval forms a key part of the overall approval process towards the commencement of mining operations. When constructed, Browns Range will be the only heavy rare earths mine in Australia, with heavy rare earths fetching considerably more than light rare earths on the global market," Northern Minerals said in a press release.