by Greg Klein
This is the first of a two-part feature. See Part 2.
Nearly a century before laggard Europeans got around to their Age of Exploration, Chinese merchant vessels had been travelling at least as far as eastern Africa, returning with vast shiploads of treasure. The voyages ended abruptly in 1433, for reasons debated by historians, and rulers ordered a massive merchant fleet destroyed. That largely left the New World to Westerners, evidently not a policy China intends to repeat. Now the country plans the conquest of three new frontiers: “deep underground, deep sky and deep sea.”
Such are the goals of Three Deep, a five-year plan announced last month by the country’s Ministry of Land and Resources. China’s funding R&D that would take mineral exploration deeper than ever on land and at sea, while exploring from outer space as well. But formidable as they are, the three frontiers aren’t completely uncharted. The expansionist, resource-hungry regime will have competition.
By 2020 the country wants the ability to mine land-based deposits that begin two kilometres in depth, find minerals at three kilometres, and identify oil and gas at 6.5 to 10 kilometres, the South China Morning Post reported October 5. China intends to develop underground communities too, although those details were even more scarce.
China also plans technology for undersea mineral exploration and mining, working towards the ability to send a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to 11 kilometres’ depth by 2020, the paper added. That’s slightly beyond the deepest known point of any seabed. The country has already sent an ROV seven kilometres deep in the Pacific. In the Indian Ocean, Chinese have been studying seabed mining technology on a 10,000-square-kilometre area south of Madagascar, the SCMP stated.
Going from the depths to the heavens, China wants 27 satellites in orbit by 2020 to conduct surveys and research, partly on terrestrial mineral potential. The country also has expressed ambitions for moon and Mars landings, and for sending its citizens into space. A Chinese competitor to SpaceX, One Space Technology, plans its first commercial rocket launch in 2018.
SpaceX, of course, retains its Elon Musk confidence even after the Falcon 9 rocket blew up prior to take-off last month, destroying a $300-million communications satellite. Having received NASA contracts to ferry people and cargo to the International Space Station, Musk continues to talk about sending colonists to Mars. He’s already sent some lithium stocks to the moon.
Probably among the more credible companies talking about mining the heavens are Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. Both develop technology for NAFTA and both have signed MOUs with Luxembourg that would help finance mineral exploration and mining of near-Earth asteroids. The Grand Duchy, a global leader in satellite communications, has announced its willingness to invest in extra-terrestrial mining to become a world leader in other worlds. The country also plans to create a legal framework for its outer space endeavours, after the U.S. passed legislation giving Americans the right to keep any extra-terrestrial commodities they extract.
Deep Space says it will launch its Prospector X experimental asteroid explorer “in the near future.” By the first half of the next decade, Planetary expects to begin small-scale extraction of asteroid water for its oxygen and hydrogen.
Already a nine-year veteran of the main asteroid belt, NASA’s Dawn craft now orbits the dwarf planet Ceres after having studied the proto-planet Vesta. Last month the space agency’s NASA OSIRIS-REx set off for the asteroid Bennu, with arrival expected in 2018 and return in 2023.
JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, has been to that neighbourhood and back after its Hayabusa craft delivered asteroid samples in 2010.
Last month the European Space Agency ended the 12-year, eight-billion-kilometre odyssey of its Rosetta craft, which spent the last two years studying a comet. In a joint project with Russia’s Roscosmos, the ESA expects to land a capsule on Mars on October 19 to search for signs of previous life.
Russia’s moon exploration program sees potential for minerals delivered by asteroid impact. “In the next few years, all scheduled moon flights will focus on its southern polar region, where low-temperature reservoirs of rare earths, as well as unknown volatile substances, have been detected,” Industrial Minerals quoted Vladislav Shevchenko of Moscow State University. Given higher commodity prices, mining could be viable, he added.
Boeing NYSE:BA recently matched Musk’s big talk as CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke about sending holidayers to orbiting tourist traps prior to linking up with the Red Planet. “I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,” Bloomberg quoted him last week. As a NASA contractor Boeing competes with SpaceX on its own and through the United Launch Alliance, a JV with Lockheed Martin NYSE:LMT.
This is the first of a two-part feature. See Part 2.
by Greg Klein | September 13, 2016
A “spectacular” niobium assay has Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE enthused about an exploration target one kilometre from its Ashram rare earths deposit. A sampling program on the northern Quebec Eldor property strengthens the Miranna area’s niobium-tantalum-phosphate potential, with results up to 5.9% niobium pentoxide. But excited as the company is, work continues to focus on Ashram’s pre-feasibility studies.
“That’s the highest grade niobium sample I have ever seen on the planet,” says president Chris Grove. “I’ve never seen anything higher. This is spectacular.”
Of 64 samples, 40 assayed above 0.5% Nb2O5, with 16 surpassing 1%. The program also found significant grades of tantalum, phosphate and rare earth oxides. Two samples each graded above 1,000 ppm Ta2O5 and 1% Nb2O5, while several samples revealed more than 10% P2O5.
The samples also showed appreciable REE mineralization associated with the niobium, Commerce added.
The finding brings to mind the origin of Commerce, which was created around the Upper Fir project in southeastern British Columbia. The property’s Blue River tantalum-niobium deposit reached PEA in 2011 and a resource update in 2013.
Niobium’s price explosion in late 2006 sent Commerce looking for additional deposits, Grove says. That led the company to Eldor. But Ashram’s initial drill results switched the focus to rare earths.
And while Miranna now presents additional multi-commodity potential, work will continue to focus on Ashram’s pre-feas, Grove emphasizes.
The Miranna samples come from a glacial train of niobium-tantalum-phosphate mineralized boulders believed to be near their source. Some mineralized samples hold magnetite, suggesting a magnetic signature to the source. The company says a magnetic high immediately south, which appears to coincide with the train’s apex, could mark the bedrock source.
Previous mineralogical work indicates that Miranna’s niobium and tantalum mineralization is hosted by pyrochlore, the world’s dominant mineral source of niobium, Commerce stated. The pyrochlore’s coarse grains would also benefit recovery.
Meanwhile work continues at Ashram, where a near-surface program of 14 holes totalling 1,600 metres began last month. Metallurgical studies at a mini-pilot plant have simplified the project’s flowsheet. Busy on a number of fronts, a company priority remains producing samples to send to potential JV or offtake partners, who might then take part in the pre-feas.
“It would make sense to have a potential partner offer input on what our production scenario would be,” Grove points out. “We have a huge deposit and we can go bigger, go smaller or stay the same. So advice from a potential partner does make sense before we actually complete the pre-feas.”
Using a 1.25% cutoff, Ashram’s 2012 resource shows 1.59 million tonnes averaging 1.77% total rare earth oxides measured, 27.67 million tonnes averaging 1.9% indicated and 219.8 million tonnes averaging 1.88% inferred. The near-surface deposit remains open to the north and south, and at depth.
Ashram hosts REEs largely in monazite and to a lesser extent bastnasite and xenotime, minerals that dominate commercial extraction. Ashram’s distribution shows enrichment in the critical and magnet feed elements neodymium, praseodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium.
by Greg Klein | August 17, 2016
With nearly $2 million in fresh financing, Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE begins another round of definition drilling on its Ashram rare earths deposit in northern Quebec. The 14-hole, 1,600-metre near-surface campaign brings the project closer to pre-feasibility, targeting the deposit’s northern, western and southern margins. Mineralization has expanded north and south since the 2012 resource estimate, remaining open in those directions.
The resource defined 1.6 million tonnes averaging 1.77% total rare earth oxides measured, 27.7 million tonnes averaging 1.9% indicated and 219.8 million tonnes averaging 1.88% inferred. Rare earth elements are found mostly in monazite and to a lesser extent bastnasite and xenotime, minerals that dominate currently known commercial extraction processes, Commerce stated.
The distribution shows enrichment in the critical and magnet feed elements neodymium, praseodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium. Metallurgical studies continue to simplify the project’s flowsheet and have shown a potential fluorspar byproduct.
One of this season’s holes will test a gravity anomaly south of the deposit for a potential new zone of middle and heavy rare earth oxide enrichment. Ashram’s main zone of enrichment also features a strong gravity anomaly.
Additionally, the program includes hydrogeological and environmental work to advance the pre-feas. Work is expected to last eight to 10 weeks.
In June Quebec granted the company $300,000 towards its environmental studies. Among other announcements, Commerce reported an MOU with a Glencore Canada division which would supply sulphuric acid for metallurgical use.
Last week the company closed the second tranche of a short-form prospectus that totalled nearly $1.45 million and a private placement of $551,040.
In southeastern British Columbia, Commerce holds the Blue River tantalum-niobium deposit, which reached PEA in 2011 and a resource update in 2013.
by Greg Klein
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“There’s excitement in the air,” said Cambridge House International founder Joe Martin. That’s the mood he senses as junior explorers emerge from the downturn. And certainly optimism was evident on June 14 as more than 450 people converged on the Vancouver Commodity Forum for an afternoon of expert talks amid a showcase of two dozen companies. Keynote speakers included Martin, Chris Berry of the Disruptive Discoveries Journal, Jon Hykawy of Stormcrow Capital, John Kaiser of Kaiser Research Online and Stephan Bogner of Rockstone Research.
Lithium, not surprisingly, stood out as a commodity of interest. While cautioning against over-enthusiasm for the exploration rush, Berry and Hykawy each affirmed the need for juniors to find new sources of the metal. Cobalt and scandium featured prominently too, as did other commodities including what Kaiser called “the weird metals”—lesser known stuff that’s vital to our lives but threatened with security of supply.
Kaiser also noted he was addressing a crowd larger than his last PDAC audience, another indication that “we’ve turned the corner.”
Attendees also met and mingled with company reps. Potential investors learned about a wide gamut of projects aspiring to meet a growing demand for necessities, conveniences and luxuries.
Presented by Zimtu Capital TSXV:ZC, the forum’s success will make it an annual event, said company president Dave Hodge. Berry emceed the conference, holding the unenviable task of “making sure Dave stays well-behaved.”
Read interviews with keynote speakers:
Meet the companies
Most companies were core holdings of Zimtu, a prospect generator that connects explorers with properties and also shares management, technical and financing expertise. Zimtu offers investors participation in a range of commodities and companies, including some at the pre-IPO stage.
After sampling high-grade lithium on its Hidden Lake project in the Northwest Territories earlier this month, 92 Resources TSXV:NTY plans to return in mid-July for a program of mapping, exposing spodumene-bearing pegmatite dykes, and channel sampling. The company closed the final tranche of a private placement totalling $318,836 in April. Hidden Lake’s located near Highway 4, about 40 kilometres from Yellowknife and within the Yellowknife Pegmatite Belt.
With one of the Athabasca Basin’s largest and most prospective exploration portfolios, ALX Uranium TSXV:AL has a number of projects competing for flagship status. Among them is Hook-Carter, which covers extensions of three known conductive trends, one of them hosting the sensational discoveries of Fission Uranium TSX:FCU and NexGen Energy TSXV:NXE. ALX’s strategic partnership with Holystone Energy allows that company to invest up to $750,000 in ALX and retain the right to maintain its ownership level for three years. ALX closed a private placement first tranche of $255,000 last month, amid this year’s busy news flow from a number of the company’s active projects.
Arctic Star Exploration TSXV:ADD boasts one of northern Canada’s largest 100%-held diamond exploration portfolios. Among the properties are the drill-ready Stein project in Nunavut and others in the Lac de Gras region that’s the world’s third-largest diamond producer by value. North Arrow Minerals TSXV:NAR holds an option to earn up to 55% of Arctic Star’s Redemption property.
Aurvista Gold TSXV:AVA considers its Douay property one of Quebec’s largest and last undeveloped gold projects. The Abitibi property has resources totalling 238,400 ounces of gold indicated and 2.75 million ounces inferred. Now, with $1.1 million raised last month, the company hopes to increase those numbers through a summer program including 4,000 metres of drilling. Douay’s 2014 PEA used a 5% discount rate to forecast a post-tax NPV of $16.6 million and a post-tax IRR of 40%.
Looking for lithium in Nevada, Belmont Resources TSXV:BEA now has a geophysics crew en route to its Kibby Basin property, which the company believes could potentially host lithium-bearing brines in a similar geological setting to the Clayton Valley, about 65 kilometres south. Results from the gravity survey will help identify targets for direct push drilling and sampling.
A mineral perhaps overlooked in the effort to supply green technologies, zeolite has several environmental applications. Canadian Zeolite TSXV:CNZ holds two projects in southern British Columbia, Sun Group and Bromley Creek, the latter an active quarrying operation.
With a high-grade, near-surface rare earths deposit hosted in minerals that have proven processing, Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE takes its Ashram project in Quebec towards pre-feasibility. The relatively straightforward mineralogy contributes to steady progress in metallurgical studies. Commerce also holds southeastern B.C.’s Blue River tantalum-niobium deposit, which reached PEA in 2011 and a resource update in 2013.
Permitted for construction following a 2014 PEA, Copper North Mining’s (TSXV:COL) Carmacks copper-gold-silver project now undergoes revised PEA studies. The agenda calls for improved economics by creating a new leach and development plan for the south-central Yukon property. In central B.C. the company holds the Thor exploration property, 20 kilometres south of the historic Kemess mine.
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by Greg Klein | June 16, 2016
As pre-feasibility work continues on the northern Quebec Ashram deposit, the provincial government awarded Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE $300,000 to optimize tailings management. Announced June 16, the three-year grant comes jointly from les Fonds de recherche du Québec—Nature et technologies and le Ministre de l’Énergie et des Ressources naturelles.
The money will help research methods of recycling and managing residue from Ashram’s metallurgical flowsheet, the company stated. The project will also look at processing an acid-grade fluorspar byproduct.
“This work will be completed in partnership with the Centre Eau Terre Environnement of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, a research-oriented branch of the Université du Québec, which has considerable experience in environmental management and sustainability,” Commerce stated. Results will be incorporated into Ashram’s pre-feas study.
With metallurgical work underway at a mini-pilot plant in Colorado, the company has reported progress in simplifying the flowsheet, showing potential cost reductions. Commerce emphasizes Ashram’s key distinction, in which the high-grade, near-surface deposit is hosted in the minerals monazite, bastnasite and xenotime, which have proven processing.
In April the company announced a binding memorandum of understanding with a Glencore division to supply Ashram with sulphuric acid for metallurgical use. That same month Commerce stated Tugliq Energy was studying the potential of wind-generated electricity for Ashram. Two northern Canadian mines currently rely on wind for part of their energy supply.
Late last year Ashram won the e3 Plus Award for responsible exploration from l’Association de l’exploration minière du Québec. In January the company closed the second tranche of a private placement totalling $1.97 million.
Commerce also holds the Blue River tantalum-niobium deposit in southeastern British Columbia, which reached PEA in 2011 and a resource update in 2013.
by Greg Klein | June 9, 2016
A territorial conflict in the East China Sea flared up again as Japan protested a Chinese warship entering disputed waters. Japan’s vice foreign minister formally objected to the Chinese ambassador on June 8, according to Reuters.
China’s defence ministry defended its actions, telling the news agency, “Chinese naval ships sailing through waters our country has jurisdiction over is reasonable and legal. No other country has the right to make thoughtless remarks about this.”
The dispute concerns islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, Reuters added. Coastguard vessels from both countries enter the area regularly, but this is the first visit by a Chinese warship, the agency stated.
A September 2010 incident in the same waters set off a supply crisis for rare earths. Japan arrested a Chinese fishing captain after he twice rammed his boat against a Japanese naval vessel. China responded by cutting off rare earths exports to Japan, pushing REE prices as high as 3,000%, recalls Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE president Chris Grove.
With a rare earths project in northern Quebec and a tantalum-niobium project in British Columbia, he follows geopolitical issues affecting critical supply and demand. Grove says the recent incident reflects a larger problem of “simmering animosity towards the Japanese, which is being stoked by the Chinese government,” as well as the country’s nationalist aggression towards its other neighbours.
“Probably all Chinese governments since 1939 have been more than willing to remind their people about Japan and the Rape of Nanking. From all my time in China, I find it jaw-dropping how often the government, through their media, exhort the people of China to remember Nanking.”
Grove considers China’s 2010 actions “nothing short of brilliant, using a really small geopolitical incident to unilaterally cut off supplies of rare earth elements to Japan, and that’s the world’s second-biggest market. Japan was completely screwed. It brings to mind the tools China has at its disposal.”
Around the same time as the Chinese navy’s June 8 incursion, three Russian naval vessels also sailed near the disputed islands, “raising concern in Japan of a co-ordinated show of force by Beijing and Moscow,” Reuters stated.
One day earlier the U.S. said a Chinese fighter jet confronted an American spy plane at an “unsafe, excessive speed” in international airspace over the East China Sea, the Wall Street Journal reported. It was the second encounter of its kind in a month.
The 2010 incident inspired David S. Abraham’s book The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age.
by Greg Klein | May 30, 2016
Three more names bring additional expertise and insight to the June 14 Vancouver Commodity Forum. Prince Arthur Capital chairperson/CEO Gerald McCarvill, Stormcrow Capital president/director Jon Hykawy and Cambridge House International founder Joe Martin will address the conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Already booked are Chris Berry of the Disruptive Discoveries Journal, John Kaiser of Kaiser Research Online and Stephan Bogner of Rockstone Research.
McCarvill’s 30-year CV includes conducting mining and energy projects globally, as well as private equity and finance transactions. Among other career highlights, he helped establish Repadre Capital, now IAMGOLD TSX:IMG, and Desert Sun Mining, later acquired by Yamana Gold TSX:YRI. McCarvill also helped develop and finance Consolidated Thompson Iron Ore from a $2-million entry valuation to its $4.9-billion sale to Cliffs Natural Resources NYSE:CLF.
An expert in areas such as lithium, rare earths, fluorspar and tin, Hykawy combines a 14-year Bay Street background with an MBA in marketing, along with post-doctoral work as a physicist with Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. His technical background also includes work on rechargeable batteries and fuel cells, as well as wind and solar energy.
Starting off in business journalism, Martin created BC Business magazine, then founded Cambridge House International to present some of the world’s largest mining/exploration conferences. He remains active in semi-retirement as a prominent advocate for investment regulatory reform.
The Vancouver Commodity Forum also features a range of companies pursuing lithium, uranium, rare earths, gold, nickel, copper, diamonds, jade, scandium, zeolite, magnesium and potash. Click here for free registration.
by Greg Klein
It’s the mining and exploration world’s hottest commodity, with parabolic prices amid a rush to find new sources of supply. But can lithium sustain this level of enthusiasm? Consider the collapse of uranium in 2007, rare earths in 2011, graphite in 2012 and—in this case, most foreboding—lithium itself between 2009 and 2011. Is this time different? Or should we heed a cautionary tale?
“We live in very exciting times in terms of how energy is used, generated and stored, and lithium is at the epicentre of that,” says Chris Berry. As an analyst with House Mountain Partners and the Disruptive Discoveries Journal, he examines the interplay of technology, emerging economies and commodities, especially energy minerals. “The demand story, when you look at the forecasts for electric vehicles and energy storage in particular, is real. It’s defensible and it’s sound.” Yet lessons from the past can’t be ignored, he adds.
“The lithium story in 2009 was almost the same as it is today: ‘Electric vehicles are here.’ In other words, they were considered ready to compete,” he recalls. “But that wasn’t the case. In 2009 they could not compete on a cost basis with internal combustion engines. I think the main difference now is the absolute collapse in cost of a lithium-ion battery on a per-kilowatt-hour basis. Now, because lithium-ion battery prices fall by about 14% per year, we are getting to the point where vehicle electrification can take hold.”
Although battery costs did drop in 2009, “on a per-kilowatt-hour basis the average battery was much more expensive than it is today.” This time around, “batteries continue to get cheaper and they continue to get more powerful at the same time. That’s a winning combination.”
Variable oil and gas prices play a role too. “But when you look at the broad trend, battery prices are falling.”
Berry’s forecasts might be less bullish than others, but remain optimistic. “There are predictions that EVs will be 20% to 25% of the overall vehicle fleet by 2025. I think that if full electric vehicles, plug-ins and hybrids made up 5% to 7% of the global fleet by 2025, that would be a huge win for the lithium market in particular and for the electric vehicle movement as well.”
Meeting demand brings on the challenges of “making a discovery, getting it permitted and ultimately building a mine,” Berry notes. “I see a tight lithium market over the next three or four years, although not anything where demand is going to blow supply away. But you can’t forget some of the lessons of the past where niche metal prices went crazy, a huge flock of juniors went into the space and a lot of capital was misallocated and lost. You have to think about the difference between investing and speculating.”
On issues of electrification, much media attention focuses on one company and its charismatic, tremendously accomplished founder. So could the boom go bust should that firm experience setbacks or, God forbid, Elon Musk get run over by a diesel-burning bus?
“Vehicle electrification really is a Tesla-centric story right now,” Berry acknowledges. “But I think the focus on Tesla is misguided. When you look at the automotive landscape you’ve got so many other automotive companies electrifying their vehicle fleets to varying degrees over the next three to five to seven years. I credit Tesla with making people realize that vehicle electrification can work. But focusing on that one company is very short-sighted.”
Nor will Tesla’s Gigafactory be the planet’s sole battery-building behemoth. At least 12 such factories are expected to come online by 2020, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. Another recent report says Volkswagen’s considering joining the group.
Berry also emphasizes the importance of a “huge, existing lithium-ion battery supply chain” that continues to grow as companies like Panasonic, Samsung SDI and LG Chem expand their capacity.
But what are the chances of a rival technology taking over? “In the next five to 10 years, absolutely zero,” Berry responds. “To be fair, there are many other chemistries out there. But lithium-ion has been around for 30 years, it’s been commercially used safely since 1991, it’s been scaled up and mass-produced. So a lot of the R&D and technology is really focused on lithium-ion right now. It would take at least five to 10 years for any of these other chemistries to catch up with and supplant lithium-ion.”
Ultimately different battery chemistries will be used for different needs, for example long-distance driving versus energy storage, he adds. “But lithium-ion is the clear frontrunner and I do not expect that to change in the next five to 10 years.”
Having said that, he sees lithium’s price eventually settling back from its steep ascent. “But I think lithium prices will remain higher than they had been for the previous 18 to 24 months,” Berry says. “And that has to do with that really tight market for supply right now.”