Chris Oldfield, Naracoorte Community News
Around 400 “bulka bags” have each been filled with ionic clay samples from the Australian Rare Earths (AR3) Koppamurra Trial Pit.
It is enough material to create permanent magnets for around 500 electric vehicles or drive a wind turbine that powers 1500 homes.
Weighing more than a tonne each, the bulka bags of clay are ready for the next phase where metallurgical processes will be refined.
AR3 managing director Don Hyma said the company had a growing belief there was an opportunity to build a rare earth refining or manufacturing hub in SA, analogous to the lithium industry in Western Australia.
Mr Hyma highlighted a recent ABC report showing the global rare earths primary industry was $4 billion in size.
“Through refining and manufacturing of rare earth permanent magnets, the global market grows to US$40 billion in size,” said Mr Hyma, referring to the report.
“Ultimately (it will) support a $4 trillion industry to manufacture electric vehicles, wind turbines and common high efficiency household appliances.
“Koppamurra and South Australia can become a key participant in the mine to magnet value chain, which contributes to global decarbonisation.”
With the help of Henschke Industries, on April 4 AR3 began excavating a trial pit in the hillside of a farm around 30 minutes from Naracoorte.
Adhering to a raft of stringent environment rules, the 400 bulka bags were eventually filled.
Then load by load and layer by layer, backfilling the trial pit began.
By the end of this month, AR3 expects to be finished at the site.
If all goes well, in around three years boots could be on the ground, officially mining for rare earths in the district.
If so, Naracoorte and South Australia would lead the nation’s unique rare earth industry by mining the ionic clays.
“Given the strong forecast demand for rare earths in the global effort to decarbonise, AR3 is progressing quickly, but in an orderly fashion, to ensure full stakeholder awareness and involvement,” Mr Hyma said.
“With careful planning and execution of work, a rough time frame to (produce a) product would be three years.”
Rare earths are a set of 17 metallic elements, classified into rare and heavy. These include the 15 lanthanides on the periodic table, plus scandium and yttrium.
They are crucial to the creation of permanent magnets.
Rare earth permanent magnets maintain their magnetic properties, even when they are exposed to a magnetic field. They have “permanent magnetic fields”.
The permanent magnets are used in more than 200 electronic items including mobile phones, computer hard drives, electric motors for cordless tools, air conditioning units and medical imaging machines among others.
They are even found in Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT), enabling the red lines for users to know if they are positive to COVID-19 or not.
But it is the permanent magnets required to drive motors in electric vehicles and power wind turbines that make rare earth permanent magnets vital for the climate economy.
AR3 technical director Rick Pobjoy said the rare earth mineralised clay excavated from the Koppamurra Trial Pit contained sufficient critical materials to create permanent magnets for 500 electric vehicles or to drive a wind turbine of a size sufficient to power 1500 average homes.
A bonus of the Koppamurra site was a lack of tailings.
“At this stage we do not envisage any above ground tailings containment, however the analysis from the trial pit will give more information on identifying any potential waste streams and subsequently inform how they are managed,” Mr Pobjoy said.
Meanwhile, Mr Hyma said the clay which hosts the rare earths was processed in a way which would result in the desired elements being extracted into a liquid solution.
“The processed clay can then be safely returned to reclaim the landscape and potentially improve the soil productivity,” he said.
“The potential to improve crop productivity is an exciting initiative involving local soil scientists and may result in a project without a waste or tailings, unlike most mining projects.
“At Australian Rare Earths we understand the importance that security and protection of groundwater resources play within our region and, as such, we will ensure our activities will not negatively impact the region’s precious water resources, not only now, but for the future.”
Excavating for rare earths meant shallow mining of the ionic clay, well above the groundwater resource.
“The depth to the watertable in the region varies but is well mapped and understood to be between 15m and 30m,” Mr Hyma said.
“The Koppamurra project is targeting clay hosted rare earth minerals which are concentrated in the clay horizon which sits on top of the Gambier limestone, the predominant groundwater source in the region.
“Subsequently, AR3 will not need to mine below the watertable.”
Mr Hyma said AR3 aspired to further refine the initial product into higher value added products, here in SA.
“It will require the collective commitment of government, higher education, and the emerging local rare earth industry to accomplish the development of a local manufacturing hub,” he said.
“We must think big if we wish to create a long term sustainable rare earth industry in SA, one that would be recognised for its technical and operational expertise world wide.”
Related story : Koppamurra mining: Australian first for rare earths
This article appeared in the Naracoorte Community News.