ABx: Taking aim at Australian aluminium fluoride production

If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that the resources investment space goes far beyond the commodities that tend to hog the headlines. 

While the likes of gold, copper, iron, and lithium seem to drive the wider market, the fact of the matter remains that these minerals often have far less practical use without the help of other peripheral elements. 

For example, lithium-ion batteries are effectively useless without a graphite anode, for which no other element can act as a substitute. 

Most iron products are alloys with other elements such as carbon, chromium, silicon, nickel, or manganese; iron by itself rusts extremely quickly and needs these other elements to be useful. 

And aluminium, one of the most widely used materials on the planet, is completely reliant on a niche compound called aluminium fluoride for its production. 

This makes it particularly interesting that Australia, the seventh largest aluminium producer on the planet, relies entirely on imports of aluminium fluoride to run its smelters. 

ABx Group (ASX:ABX) has noticed this gap in the market for local Australian aluminium fluoride production and has spent some years developing its ALCORE technology to service this industry. 

While ALCORE and aluminium fluoride are certainly not ABx’s only ventures, Managing Director and CEO Dr Mark Cooksey tells Mining.com.au this market segment is set to play a big part in the company’s future. 

All-in on ALCORE 

So, what exactly is the ALCORE technology, and how does it work?

According to Cooksey, the bottom line is simple: ALCORE — both the name of the technology and of ABx’s 83% owned subsidiary — is developing a process to produce hydrogen fluoride and then aluminium fluoride from a waste product created during the aluminium smelting process. 

The benefits of this technology’s potential success are clear: firstly, creating the product from waste makes for circular production; secondly, the ALCORE process lowers the cost of creating aluminium fluoride because pricy fluorspar is no longer required; and thirdly, the ALCORE process means a lower reliance on imports for Australian aluminium producers. 

This potential reduction of import reliance is more pertinent than ever given rising geopolitical tensions between the East and the West, because as it stands, Australia receives around 80% of its aluminium fluoride from China. 

“The world is an unpredictable place,” Cooksey explains. 

“And it’s a long way from anywhere to here [Australia]. You never know what could interrupt supply; it could be a geopolitical thing, it could be a pandemic.

It’s not about predicting what could go wrong, it’s about accepting that something could go wrong and having a plan for it.” 

ABx has been working to become part of this plan through ALCORE, with some major milestones reached in early 2024, including positive results using a new state-of-the-art bath pilot batch reactor at the ALCORE Technology Centre in New South Wales. 

Of course, this all begs the question: how does the ALCORE technology actually work?

For the layman…

As can be expected, the actual technology and chemistry behind the ALCORE process would likely take several years of study to fully understand. However, Cooksey breaks it down for this news service in simple terms:

He explains that the current conventional aluminium fluoride production process is to take calcium fluoride, which can be mined, and react it with sulfuric acid to make hydrogen fluoride and some other byproducts. 

From here, one can then take the hydrogen fluoride and react it with alumina to make aluminium fluoride. 

The ALCORE process, on the other hand, replaces the calcium fluoride at the start of the process with an aluminium production waste material known as ‘bath’. 

“We use this waste material that contains sodium, aluminium, and fluoride, and we process it in a similar way,” Cooksey explains.

“We react with sulfuric acid. It produces hydrogen fluoride. And then, the same as the existing process, we react hydrogen fluoride with alumina and make aluminium fluoride.”

The ALCORE process effectively creates the same aluminium fluoride product without the need for the mined calcium fluoride, which is a crucial ingredient in the conventional process. And the fact that this product can be replaced with waste heralds major cost and environmental benefits for producers. 

An important industry

It’s not just ABx that believes it’s important to fill the potential gaps in the aluminium production market; in December 2023, the Australian Government added fluorine to its Critical Minerals List. 

This matters across the entire aluminium production process because, as Cooksey puts it, producers rarely talk about fluorine by itself; fluorine is simply the element that exists in other fluoride compounds along the aluminium supply chain. 

Essentially, the addition of fluorine to the Critical Minerals List indicates that the government is willing to support businesses working to secure a reliable supply of fluorine-based compounds for the Australian market. 

While it does not guarantee government funding for ABx or others in this industry, it means they are now eligible for this kind of funding should the opportunity arise. 

So, what’s next for ALCORE?

As with any development process, the first thing a business needs to do is prove that its plan works. 

In ABx’s case, the theory behind the ALCORE process is that it can take a waste material, react it in multiple stages with other elements, and produce aluminium fluoride. 

And the company has proven that this theory works — on a small scale, in any case. 

In a lab setting and with small-scale samples, ABx has proven to investors and potential financiers that the ALCORE process works as intended, albeit with some room for optimisation.

This means the next step for the company is to test this theory on a larger scale with larger quantities of materials. 

“That’s the stage we’re into now,” Cooksey says. 

“That’s what the bath pilot reactor is about, because instead of reacting 200 grams of materials, it’s 15 kilograms. We’re looking at ‘does the chemistry still work when you’ve got more stuff?’”

This means ABx’s immediate next steps are to run the bath pilot batch reactor and demonstrate that it can produce the desired products at a larger scale. 

From here, the company will look to build a continuous pilot plant — which, as the name suggests, will see if the same material can be reacted in the same way at larger scales over longer periods of time.

ABx already has a design for the continuous pilot plant, and Cooksey says the company is on the hunt for a potential strategic partner to support construction and operation.

While he was hesitant to put timelines to milestones, Cooksey made it clear that at no point has ABx been idling; ALCORE is the ‘world leader’ in developing this new aluminium fluoride production technology, according to ABx, so the most important aspect of development is optimising the technological process. 

Looking at conventional timelines, one could assume that it could take around one year to build and develop a continuous pilot plant, and another year to build and develop a commercial plant, which would peg ALCORE’s completion at some point in the year 2026. 

However, Cooksey and the ABx team are making it clear that quality trumps speed at all stages of the process. The company is confident in its technology, it’s confident in its team, and it’s confident in its ability to develop ALCORE to commercialisation; everything else is peripheral. 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the company is making strides in its other business arms, as well.

Rare earths rumble

In July 2023, Mining.com.au released a two-part series highlighting the prospectivity of ABx’s Deep Leads – Rubble Mound Rare Earths Project in Northern Tasmania.

ABx is the first company to discover rare earths in Tasmania, and the project is positioned as a unique true Ionic Adsorption Clay (IAC) asset.

In mid-2023, ABx upgraded the rare earths elements Mineral Resource Estimate (MRE) to more than 20 million tonnes. Since then, however, the company has continued to tick off milestones at the rare asset. 

By December 2023, for example, ABx had upgraded the Deep Leads – Rubble Mound MRE to 52 million tonnes averaging 817 parts per million (ppm) total rare earth oxides (TREO) from just 39% of the mineralised outline in the area. 

The company also reported that the project had a ‘remarkably high’ portion of dysprosium and terbium, averaging 4.4% of TREO, with some blocks of the block model resource exceeding 6%.

“We’ve grown the resource, and we understand a lot more about the geology, so we’re getting better and better at looking for the good stuff,” Cooksey says. 

This was further solidified by the high-grade REEs discovered at the Wind Break and Rubble Mound deposits, as reported in the first quarter of 2024. 

Yet, Cooksey says further to the rare earths discoveries and resource bumps, the company has also furthered its engagement with potential strategic partners. 

“We were engaging them already, but now it’s moved to discussions about actual investment.”

“Right now, when we’re making exploration decisions, it’s more valuable to go to look for higher-grade material…”

This means on the rare earths front, ABx’s near-term goals revolve around further drilling with a specific focus on high-grade material — another testament to the company’s strategic decision-making.

“Right now, when we’re making exploration decisions, it’s more valuable to go to look for higher-grade material — even if we keep the total amount of tonnes the same rather than more tonnes at the current grade we’re at.”

This drilling is accompanied by metallurgical work to better understand the economics of the project, because, as Cooksey explains, one of the most important parts of developing Deep Leads – Rubber Mound is to make sure the project’s at the lower end of the cost curve compared to potential competitors. 

Banking on Bauxite

Finally, it would be remiss to ignore ABx’s bauxite assets given this market was the company’s original stomping ground. 

Though it has evolved from its days as Australian Bauxite Limited, ABx still owns the Sunrise Bauxite Project in Queensland and the DL130 Bauxite Project in Tasmania. 

And the company plans to begin bauxite mining once more from its DL130 project during the September quarter of this year. 

“We have customers that are very keen on our product, and we announced back in September a supply agreement with Adelaide Brighton Cement.”

These bauxite shipments, while perhaps not huge compared to the wider market, are a low-risk and profitable way for ABx to begin generating positive cash flow with little necessary investment. 

“We’ll generate some positive cashflow that we can use to pay our running costs of the company. 

It just frees up more cash to focus on the rare earths and ALCORE.”

“It just frees up more cash to focus on the rare earths and ALCORE”

Careful planning, consistent results

ABx has a diverse portfolio of strategic exploration and technology assets, and the company continues to prove its ability to chip away at its goals in a cost-effective way. 

And investors, producers, and governments alike are noticing the value of the company’s assets.

Now, with ALCORE further in development, rare earths resources growing, bauxite mining on the horizon, and talks with potential strategic partners underway, the company is positioning itself to deliver on not just some but all of its strategic milestones for its assets over the coming years.

Images: ABx Group