MINEX Europe 2015: Old world, new opportunities

By Myles McCormick
Published: Friday, 27 November 2015

Difficult times generate new initiatives and new opportunities, delegates heard at the inaugural MINEX European Mining and Exploration Forum in Vienna, Austria, in November.

Difficult times generate new initiatives and new opportunities, was the message delivered by Professor Alexander Antonov, doctor of geology and president of Industrial Services Worldwide LP, at the inaugural MINEX European Mining and Exploration Forum in Vienna, Austria, in November.

Innovation in hard times was a theme that pervaded the event, as industry participants sought to pinpoint the positives in an industry weighed down by low commodity prices and global economic stagnation.

Antonov spoke of possibilities offered by new technologies in Europe’s oldest mining provinces in the central and southeastern parts of the continent – the Harz, Erzgebirge and Pribram geological areas – for the mining of lead, zinc, gold, copper, tin, uranium, tungsten and lithium.

Erzgebirge is host to the Cinovec lithium-tin-tungsten deposit on the Czech-German border, with exploration rights owned by ASX-listed European Metal Holdings Ltd (EMH).

The site has an inferred lithium resource of 5.5m tonnes lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) – 514.8m tonnes at 0.43% lithium oxide (Li2O) (0.1% lithium cut off) – and an additional exploration target of 3.4m-5.3m tonnes LCE – 350-450m tonnes at 0.39-0.47% Li2O.

A soon-to-be formalised joint venture (JV) between EMH and fellow ASX-listed Lithium Australia NL will see the site make use of proprietary technology licenced to Lithium Australia for the extraction of lithium from zinnwaldite – a lithium mica.

The company said that a recent continuous test run in Perth, processing lepidolite – another lithium mica – from its Coolgardie mine in Western Australia (WA) proved the process’s viability to extract lithium carbonate from micas, which it has described as "the forgotten ore".

Lithium Australia is now awaiting the conclusion of EMH’s listing on London’s AIM exchange before finalising JV plans and moving ahead with process testing for Cinovec’s zinnwaldite. 

"We have a sample from Cinovec sitting in Perth, ready to be processed pending EMH’s listing," Barry Woodhouse, Lithium Australia’s CFO, told IM.

Lithium Australia has three licenses for the use of the technology: one giving it sole use over the technology in WA for 25 years, plus two floating licenses for use at any site globally. It intends to use one of these at the Cinovec deposit and is currently seeking further European opportunities to make use of the third.

"We are looking for deposits that have been marred for a number of years," Woodhouse said, "where other people see waste, we see feedstock."

The nature of the technology allows for the production of battery grade lithium carbonate from materials that would otherwise be considered waste products, reducing both capital cost and energy footprint, and giving it a predicted production cost of around $1,800/tonne LCE, significantly lower than current brine extraction methods. It also produces potassium sulphate and aluminium hydroxide as by-products that can be sold on the market in their own right. 

"Europe is open for mining and communities are looking for funding and jobs," Woodhouse said. 

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Delegates at the forum heard from a number of industry
experts, optimistic about the future of mining on the continent
in spite of current difficulties. 

Serbian opportunities

Optimism for new mining opportunities extends throughout Europe. 

In Serbia, an overhauled mining code, a competitive tax system, a pro-industry government and EU membership by 2020 were among the elements touted in favour of investment in the country, where mining currently accounts for just 1.4-2% of GDP.

Serbia hosts 2,000 metallic and 2,500 industrial mineral deposits and mineral occurrences, Dragan Milosevic, managing director of consultancy Serbia Mining, told delegates. 

Global mining giant Rio Tinto Plc is moving to the next stage of its Jadar borates and lithium project in western Serbia, Milosevic told IM. The company hopes to extract the two products from the rock jadarite, a mineral unique to the region, which holds the same chemical formula as kryptonite. 

Rio has declared an inferred resource of 125.3m tonnes with a weighted average Li2O concentration of 1.8% and 16.2m tonnes boron trioxide (B2O3) for the deposit’s lower zone.

It has invested €65m ($69.2m*) into the project to date and is currently in the process of appointing consultants to carry out a pre-feasibility study (PFS) for the site from a list of around eight candidates, Milosevic said. The 18-month PFS is scheduled to begin in 2016.

Elsewhere in Serbia, major industrial minerals producers include Omya Vencac, a subsidiary of Swiss group, Omya AG, which produces calcium carbonate at Arandjelovac in the central part of the country; Germany’s Quartzwerke GmbH has clay and quartz operations in eastern Serbia; and Belgium’s Carmeuse SA produces lime in the mid-west.

Tungsten mining in Austria and copper and gold mining in Macedonia were also discussed at the Minex meeting. 

EU backing

Some delegates bemoaned EU environmental restrictions. "Today, there seems to be a whole industry in not permitting mines," said one visibly frustrated market participant. However, EU initiatives to encourage exploration were also brought centre stage.

Dr Marcin Sadowski, head of the raw materials sector of the European Commission’s (EC) Executive Agency for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (EAMSE), said that the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme would dedicate around €3bn in funding research and innovation in climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials between 2014 and 2020. 

"Europe is coming back to thinking that production, specifically mining, is important," he said. 

Dr Wolfgang Reiner, managing director of German raw materials consultancy, Geokompetenzzentrum Freiburg, said that further measures must be undertaken to address the deindustrialisation of the continent, while Dr Andreas Benkitsch, CFO of EIT Raw materials, spoke of his organisation’s efforts to "bridge the valley of death" between innovative ideas and the marketplace. 

Meanwhile, efforts are also being made to compile geological data in one place. 

Juha Kaija, of the Finnish Geological Survey, introduced Minerals 4EU, the EU’s intelligence network structure for minerals. 

Part of the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials (EIPRM), Minerals 4EU aims to create a platform aggregating the data of various national geological surveys in order to enhance resource efficiency and minerals supply security across the continent.

But alongside the various EU ventures, something essential to pushing forward support for mining in Europe is the removal of the disconnect between upstream producers and the end user, Benkitsch said, noting that popular support requires a more complete understanding of the importance of raw materials in everyday life.

"My kids think electricity comes from plugs, tomatoes from the supermarket and cars from car dealerships," said Benkitsch.