Browns Range roars into life

AUSTRALIA has entered the rare earths processing game with Northern Minerals’ Browns Range heavy rare earths pilot plant starting operations.
Browns Range roars into life Browns Range roars into life Browns Range roars into life Browns Range roars into life Browns Range roars into life

The Northern Minerals board with Alannah MacTiernan

Officially opened by Western Australian Minister for Regional Development Alannah MacTiernan a year to the day since WA Premier Mark McGowan turned the site's first sod to start construction, the three-year pilot plant project is testing the technical and economic feasibility of a proposed larger scale dysprosium and terbium operation.

The plant, 165km southeast of Halls Creek, will process 180,000 tonnes of heavy rare earths ore over the next three years.

This amounts to 15% of the final full-scale production of the project, which will generate about $20 million per annum in rare earth sales.

The full-scale plant is expected to open in 2020-21.

Through the pilot plant Northern Minerals hopes to learn more about the geology and processing characteristics of the Browns Range orebody, and produce mixed rare earth carbonates for offtake sales. 

Terbium is used alongside dysprosium in wind turbines, industrial robots, air conditioning and numerous other technologies in development.

Dysprosium is used to make permanent magnet electric motors mainly because it reduces the weight requirement and allows operation at very high temperatures.

With the demand for electric vehicles expected to grow to more than 20 million vehicles per year by 2025 many offtake partners and downstream processors are keen to secure reliable supply outside of China.

As the only dysprosium producer outside of China, Browns Range is well placed to become a significant, stable supplier of this important element in a new era for tech metals in WA.

After attending the opening and the sod turning ceremony a year ago, and was impressed with the work done over the past year to get the project up and running.

While the flight to the remote site that straddles the WA/NT border made Sinosteel deputy general manager Jiang Yongmin turn a little green in the gills, the burgeoning plant was a sight to behold, and it was good to see the new runway hold up.

At the opening ceremony Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan told the crowd - a who's who of the Kimberley - that the Browns Range pilot processing plant was a major milestone for the tech metals industry and would be a major job-creator for the Kimberley region and WA.

MacTiernan said Northern Minerals had a strong focus on local procurement and Aboriginal employment, including its $8.1 million 'training-to-work' program to support the Ringer Soak (Kundat Djaru) community.

Northern Minerals managing director and CEO George Bauk said the opening was nearly eight years in the making, since the initial discovery in 2010.

"There are not too many times when a managing director can stand up and launch a new industry in Australia, and this is what we are doing today," he said.

Bauk said projects such as Browns Range highlighted the success of the federal government's research and development tax incentive scheme for stimulating the emergence of new industries.

In light of the government's proposed changes to the research and development rebates, Bauk said it would have made it very hard to build this project had it been starting this financial year, so the government should preserve the current R&D rebate arrangements.

Browns Range has created 62 full-time jobs in the Kimberley in construction, with another 33 full-time jobs set to open in the next three years.