Astute Metals and its (actually) transformative year

In the hubristic world of corporate communications, ‘transformative’ is one of those words whose rampant overuse has sadly eliminated a good deal of meaning. See also: ‘tier-one’, ‘first mover’, ‘best in class’, and maybe the most hateful of all, ‘industry-leading’.

In the context of Astute Metals (ASX:ASE) and its work over the last 12 months, however, ‘transformative’ actually fits rather well.

At the start of 2023, what was then Astro Resources had just finalised its acquisition from Greenvale Energy (ASX:GRV) of an 80% stake in the Georgina Basin IOCG Project in the Northern Territory. It joined the Governor Broome Mineral Sands and the Smoke Creek Diamond projects in Western Australia, as well as the Needles Gold Project in Nevada, to round out an impressive portfolio of assets in its own right.

In March, however, things really started to take off with the announcement of a new lithium-focused strategy and the subsequent staking of two lithium projects — Polaris and Altair — in Nevada.

In June, the company proposed solidifying “a number of important corporate and strategic developments” by changing its name from Astro Resources to Astute Metals, a motion supported by 99.66% of shareholders at the AGM in July and which took effect shortly thereafter.

Since then, Astute has acquired a highly prospective land package directly adjacent to Governor Broome, staked another two lithium projects — Cobre and Red Mountain — in Nevada, and generally primed itself for another significant year in 2024.

Making sense of Governor Broome

One of the fundamental problems with mineral sands projects is their complexity. As Executive Director Matt Healy explains, Astute’s Governor Broome Project is no different.

“Mineral sands projects are a little tricky for people to understand because you’ve got a tonnage, you’ve got a heavy mineral percentage, and then you’ve got a percentage of different minerals within that, which become products,” Healy says.

“It’s not that immediately accessible. You really need to dig into it to understand what potential value is there.”

Though the project already contained a significant JORC resource, the majority of it was in the inferred category. The first priority, therefore, was to bring that resource into the measured and indicated categories, thereby qualifying it for inclusion in a scoping study.

A 502-hole in-fill drilling program was completed in early May, the results of which culminated in an upgraded mineral resource estimate in November. The MRE outlined a 93.4-million-tonne resource at 4.5% heavy minerals, with 28.4 million tonnes in the measured category and 65 million tonnes classified as indicated — an 18% increase from the previous 79-million-tonne indicated resource.

Included in this was the Fouracres deposit, which Astute acquired at the start of August.

“Fouracres came along as an opportunity for us in the middle of the year. It’s not a huge resource, but it was basically along strike from our Jack Track deposit,” Healy says.

“It’s quite high grade, it’s just under a million tonnes, but with a heavy mineral content at the 9.4% mark, and a similar sort of mineralogy that we’ve got at Jack Track. So it was a nice fit for the project, particularly being next door

“It’s quite high grade, it’s just under a million tonnes, but with a heavy mineral content at the 9.4% mark, and a similar sort of mineralogy that we’ve got at Jack Track. So it was a nice fit for the project, particularly being next door.”

With a better handle on the size and grade of the resource at Governor Broome, the next step was to work out what, exactly, it might be able to deliver for Astute.

A bulk testwork program was completed in August, focusing on the economic viability of ilmenite, rutile and zircon products separated from a 2-tonne sample of heavy mineral concentrate from the Jack Track deposit.

“We took our samples, we did some bulk testwork, and then were able to generate mineral products out of that. Individual mineral products like ilmenite, like rutile, like zircon,” Healy explains.

“We got them assayed, and the characteristics of those are comparable to other products on the market.”

The promising testwork results and the upgraded MRE form the basis of a scoping study for Governor Broome launched in mid-September, and which remains on track for delivery in the first quarter of 2024.

“With the scoping study we’ll get financials. People will be able to understand it, wrap their head around it and go: ‘Oh, this thing could make some money’. And then it’s about realising shareholder value. That could take the path of a joint venture, it could take the path of a sale. We’re not sure yet. To a large extent, it’ll be driven by the results.”

Hunting the IOCG beast at Georgina Basin

Located in the highly prospective East Tennant region of the Northern Territory, the Georgina Basin Project consists of 13 exploration licences, three of which are currently under application, spanning a whopping 4,522km-square.

Previous drilling by both Astute and Greenvale intersected prospective host rocks thought to be associated with an iron oxide copper-gold (IOCG) system. Most recently, a diamond drill hole completed in 2022 at the Leichhardt East prospect returned 0.24% triuranium octoxide (U3O8), including elevated quantities of copper and bismuth.

“That’s a very good grade,” Healy says.

“And that was associated with some ironstones, which is significant because all the deposits at Tennant Creek are hosted by ironstones.”

In an effort to gain a better understanding of the subsurface structures at Georgina Basin, Astute launched an Ambient Noise Tomography (ANT) survey in August using Fleet Space Technologies’ ExoSphere technology.

“We said: ‘Okay, this is going to tell us where the boundaries are between rock types and where there’s possibly more dense rocks in the subsurface’. And then we’ll overlay our gravity data — we’ve already got a very good gravity data set, and we’ve got a very good magnetic data set — and look at all three together,” Healy explains.

“The data is collected in real time and it’s processed in real time, and what we’ve got is pretty clear. I can’t talk too much about it because we haven’t put out the results yet. We’re in the midst of doing our interpretation on that. But we’ve got the final data and we’ve given it to our consultant geophysicist to do some further analysis with.”

Also of note at Georgina Basin is the project’s western-most tenement, ELA32280, which is currently under application. Astute is “pretty advanced” in its discussions with the Central Land Council and by all accounts is progressing well towards its goal of having the tenement granted for exploration.

“That’s an important one because Geoscience Australia did some IOCG modelling in the East Tennant region, and on that tenement is one of the highest-intensity IOCG prospects, or ‘mineral-potential’ zones, in the East Tennant. So getting that tenement granted and being able to get on the ground and do some work will be pretty special for us.”

A new platform for lithium in Nevada

Astute’s lithium projects in Nevada remain a consistent source of excitement for Healy and his team. When the company announced the staking of Polaris and Altair in March, it pledged at the same time to continue expanding its footprint of claystone-hosted lithium assets.

It made good on that promise in September with the addition of the Red Mountain and Cobre projects to its portfolio. 

“We did a couple of weeks with the desktop work and looked at the whole state of Nevada. We went: ‘Rightio, we’re comfortable with Nevada, we like it as a mining jurisdiction, where can we find more of these claystone deposits?’ We know they’re big, we know they’re economically very attractive. We know there’s the impetus to get a domestic supply of lithium in the US,” Healy says.

“So we went out and did some reconnaissance and sampling in April, into May, and as a result of that reconnaissance work, once we got our assays, we staked Cobre and we staked Red Mountain. That’s a key part of our new platform for lithium exploration in Nevada, and we think it’s a really good platform.”

Nevertheless, it’s early days. The surface at both Polaris and Altair is covered with gravel, which makes soil and rock chip sampling rather difficult. Instead, Astute went straight for scout drilling, completing a maiden drill hole in the third quarter of 2023 at Altair.

That hole returned 33.5m at 481 parts per million (ppm) lithium from 80.8m and 33.5m at 508ppm lithium from 147.8m, ending in mineralisation and hinting strongly at the potential for further mineralisation at depth within the regional Siebert formation.

A follow-up program was launched and completed in November, with two sites pegged for testing approximately 7km east along strike from the initial hole. Both holes intersected clays, although the final results have not yet been announced.

Drilling at Polaris, meanwhile, yielded results up to 68.6m at 70.1ppm lithium, including 12.2m at 145ppm lithium from 129.5m. All but one hole — a casualty of poor drilling conditions — made it through the cover to intersect clay, each showing elevated levels of lithium mineralisation.

At Cobre, initial fieldwork undertaken shortly after the project was staked returned high-grade soil samples up to 1,640ppm lithium, while rock chip sampling at Red Mountain yielded results up to 2,190ppm lithium.

“That’s a good grade,” explains Healy.

“To put that in context, some of the established projects with mineral resources out there, they’re mineral resources at a cut-off grade of 300ppm lithium. So you’ve got cut-offs at 300ppm, and when you see grades like 2,190ppm — all right, that’s pretty significant. So we can sort of see the potential for scale from the soil sampling, and we can see the potential for grade from the rock chip sampling. Now it’s about going in and cementing our understanding of the project with some drill holes in the first quarter of next year.”

What is unique about Red Mountain in particular is the presence of lithium claystones at surface. While Polaris and Altair are at more advanced stages of exploration, comparable drilling results at Red Mountain will likely make it the star of Astute’s Nevada portfolio.

“In terms of a potential mining scenario, your strip ratio is going to be next to nothing compared to, say, Altair, where you’ve got to get through 60 metres or thereabouts of gravel to get down to your clays,” Healy adds.

“We’re very confident that we’re going to get delivery of good results from that project. So I want to be well down that path and perhaps even securing a rig for the next program

Though planning is well underway for the initial drilling program, Astute won’t be able to get on the ground until the winter snow clears. Even so, Healy is already giving thought to potential drilling work thereafter.

“We’re already planning for the drill program beyond that. We’re planning to permit the second drill program either before or while we’re drilling the first one,” he says.

“We’re very confident that we’re going to get delivery of good results from that project. So I want to be well down that path and perhaps even securing a rig for the next program.”

Looking ahead

Asked how he views the year that was, Healy seemed resoundingly pleased with Astute’s accomplishments.

“We announced the new strategy, right? The strategy was: increase our footprint in Nevada for lithium clay deposits, advance the Governor Broome Mineral Sands Project towards a scoping study, and continue doing some exploration at Georgina,” he says.

“And we’ve achieved all of those things. We’re serious about delivering on what we say we’re going to do.”

Over the next 6 months, Healy wants to have the maiden drilling program at Red Mountain done and the project primed for further exploration, just as he’d like to get some boots on the ground at Georgina Basin should that key tenement be granted.

Perhaps most of all, he’d like to get the scoping study completed for Governor Broome, at which point a good number of doors could well be opened, if not blown off their hinges.

“That’s still on track for completion in the first quarter, and that will determine the direction we want to take with that project,” Healy says.

“We’ve already put it out there — the scoping study is about realising the potential of that project.”

Indeed, 2023 was a transformative period for Astute Metals, and not in the flimsy, recklessly well worn sense with which it’s usually thrown about. Given the apparent successes of that transformation to date, one can’t help but ask the question: how will things look in another year’s time?

Write to Oliver Gray at Mining.com.au

Images: Astute & Fleetspace Technologies
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Written By Oliver Gray
Originally from Perth, Oliver has a keen interest long-form journalism. He has written for a number of publications and was most recently Contributing Editor of The Market Herald’s opinion section, Art of the Essay.