Favourable mineralogy helps Commerce Resources move its Quebec rare earth project towards pre-feasibility
by Greg Klein
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On schedule and under budget, winter-spring drilling at Commerce Resources’ (TSXV:CCE) Ashram deposit in northern Quebec wrapped up last week, bringing one of the world’s largest rare earth projects closer to pre-feasibility. Ashram advances at a time when China’s “costs of producing ‘cheap’ rare earths are becoming increasingly unsustainable in terms of the environment, the availability of reserves, the health of its communities and the political ramifications,” according to a 28-page report by Secutor Capital Management. The study adds that China “is beginning to worry about its own domestic supply, as China is its own biggest customer.”
That puts an interesting perspective on Commerce, “one of the most advanced REE juniors in regards to metallurgy which, in the REE space, is everything,” Secutor analysts Arie Papernick and Lilliana Paoletti stated. “The Ashram project hosts a substantial resource with a well-balanced rare earth oxide (REO) distribution. The deposit is enriched in light and heavy rare earths, including all five of the critical elements. The mineralogy is simple due to the presence of the minerals monazite, bastnaesite and xenotime, which currently dominate commercial processing. Unlike many of its competitors, Commerce is able to produce a 43.6% total rare earth oxide (TREO) mineral concentrate due to the deposit’s simple mineralogy, allowing significant cost reductions.”
According to Ashram’s 2012 preliminary economic assessment, the extent of those critical elements—neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium—is “unusual in carbonatite deposits and especially those of such tonnage and grade.”
That resource used a cutoff of 1.25% total rare earth oxide to estimate a measured and indicated 29.3 million tonnes averaging 1.9% TREO, and an inferred 219.8 million tonnes averaging 1.88% TREO.
As the Secutor report emphasized, “REE mineralization is virtually completely contained within the minerals monazite, bastnaesite and xenotime, allowing Commerce Resources to use standard processing techniques. In the REE industry, the ability to use conventional metallurgy and processing is rather unique. Only four REE-bearing minerals out of over 200 have ever supplied the market in a material fashion. These four minerals currently, and historically, dominate commercial REE processing and are host to the REEs at Ashram.”
The 43.6% TREO concentrate, at a recovery of 70.7%, comprises “one of the highest-grade REE mineral concentrates which we are aware of produced by a junior mining company globally.”
It’s considerably higher than that of Ashram’s 2012 PEA, which anticipated reaching a target of 20% TREO at a recovery of 60% to 70% “through an established and commercially proven technology.” Yet the PEA’s base case considered a concentrate grading 10% TREO at 70% recovery.
In the REE industry, the ability to use conventional metallurgy and processing is rather unique.—Secutor Capital Management analysts Arie Papernick
and Lilliana Paoletti
The study used a 10% discount rate to project Ashram’s pre-tax, pre-finance net present value at $2.32 billion and a 44% internal rate of return. The capex, including contingency, came to $763 million with payback in 2.25 years. The PEA envisioned a 4,000-tonne-per-day open pit operating for 25 years—based on just 15% of the total resource.
And although rare earth prices have dropped since 2012, “the project remains robust,” Secutor maintains.
The higher-grade concentrate, with its capex and opex ramifications, is just one of the reasons analysts Papernick and Paoletti see a potentially more impressive pre-feas. Ashram’s infrastructure costs might benefit from proximity to the Lac Otelnuk iron project, 80 kilometres south. A joint venture of Adriana Resources TSXV:ADI and WISCO International Resources Development & Investment, it’s the “largest iron ore deposit in Canada with the potential of becoming one of the largest in the world,” according to Adriana. The project’s 2011 PEA calculated a $12.9-billion capex which included power and, via the link at Schefferville 165 kilometres southeast, railway to the deep sea port of Sept-Iles. Since then the Quebec government has indicated it will only permit a multi-user rail service.
Lac Otelnuk has full feasibility scheduled for completion by year-end.
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