Astute Metals: carving out a new frontier for lithium in Nevada

This article is a sponsored feature from Mining.com.au partner Astute Metals Ltd (formerly Astro Resources). It is not financial advice. Talk to a registered financial expert before making investment decisions. This is the second in a two-part series.

In part one of this series, we took a look at Astro Resources — soon to be officially called Astute Metals (ASX:ASE) after shareholders approved a name change yesterday morning (17 July 2023) — and its efforts in self-reinvention over the past 12 months. 

With a new name, board, and management team — not to mention a portfolio of assets that would be the envy of many junior explorers — Astute finds itself in a healthy position to move forward with a specialised focus on copper, gold, and lithium.

The company is currently waiting for confirmation to be received from the Australian
Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) in respect to the name change to Astute.

The Georgina Basin IOCG Project, in which Astute acquired an 80% stake through a deal with Greenvale Energy (ASX:GRV) last year, could very well satisfy the matters of copper and gold. 

“You find an IOCG out there, or a big sediment-hosted deposit, it’s game on,” says Matt Healy, Astute’s General Manager of Exploration. “These things are absolute company-makers.”

But it’s Astute’s newly staked lithium projects in Nevada, US, that are the real source of giddy anticipation.

Nevada’s new lithium frontier

In March 2023, Astute acquired 2 new projects — Polaris and Altair — in the southern extent of Nevada’s Montezuma Valley, south-west of Tonopah.

“We did project generation a bit at the desktop level for a couple of months and went, okay, these are our best areas in Nevada,” Healy says.

“We want to find new lithium projects. We want to find them away from everyone else. We want to be first-mover in a new region for lithium in Nevada because the rocks that host them are actually relative. They’re more widespread than you might think.”

In Nevada, there are two primary areas for lithium exploration: McDermitt to the north, where Thacker Pass — North America’s largest known lithium deposit, owned by Lithium Americas (NYSE:LAC) — is located; and Tonopah to the south.

“We did project generation a bit at the desktop level for a couple of months and went, okay, these are our best areas in Nevada”

But given the size and extent of lithium host rocks in the state, Healy couldn’t help thinking an entirely new and untapped region might exist. Determined to do something different, Astute undertook a detailed review of regional open file data, including mapped geology, topography, stream sediment geochemistry and land administration, and stumbled across something very interesting.

In 1946, during the fallout of World War II, the US established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to oversee the peacetime development of atomic technologies. Until then, the primary sources of uranium had been Canada and what was then the Belgian Congo. So the AEC launched its own uranium procurement program, and set about the ambitious task of collecting thousands of samples before analysing them largely for uranium.

“These samples they took were sitting in a shed,” Healy says. 

“They got re-assayed by the US Geological Survey two years ago, and that data you can download. You’re talking about 390,000 samples that were re-assayed by the USGS — that’s a lot of data points. It’s just sitting there. We couldn’t believe our eyes.”

Healy and the Astute team overlaid this data across Nevada and found that, in addition to uranium, the re-assayed samples also show lithium in areas that were at the time unclaimed. They identified 128 anomalies across the state, narrowed those down to the best 12, then flew to the US and sampled 7 of them.

“It’s quite remarkable to think that 50 years ago, these samples were assayed for uranium, because that’s all they were after. And then the samples were put in a shed or a container somewhere. If I was exploring for other things over there, that’d be the first place I’d be going,” Healy explains.

“That’s where I think our big value uptick is going to be, because we’re going to get a big project, it’ll have capacity to hold a world-class lithium deposit. And we’ve already done some sampling, we know there’s some lithium there. It’s a matter of getting the drill on — what is the extent, and how thick is it. That’s what I’m excited about. Surprise, surprise — a geologist excited about exploration.”

Digging deep

Astute Metals is, if nothing else, true to its word. At the end of June 2023, the company announced the results from three scout holes completed at the Polaris Project, with assays clearly indicating highly anomalous lithium mineralisation within the Siebert Formation — sedimentary host rocks mapped across Nevada.

All three holes terminated in strong lithium mineralisation, with one returning 12.2m at 145 parts per million (ppm) lithium from 129.5m.

“This is a very positive development for the project as it confirms the lithium-bearing nature of the Siebert Formation in this area, with strong indications that higher grades and thicker mineralised zones may occur nearby,” Astute’s Chairman Tony Leibowitz said at the time.

“This potential will be the focus of the now-resumed drilling campaign, which will target thicker zones and extensions of the holes which terminated in strong lithium anomalism.”

Given lithium mineralisation in 2 holes improved at greater depths, Astute has launched a re-drill campaign to further deepen the holes to roughly 213.4m, after which the rig will move to Altair where another three holes have been planned.

It’s work that Nevada’s regulatory bodies have been only too happy to facilitate.

“It’s the place to be. Once you start getting up to the north, like Oregon, for example, that’s a different kettle of fish because it’s a very green state. They haven’t permitted a mine for some time,” Healy says.

“But Nevada is very much a mining state, they’re very familiar with mining. They pump out loads of gold, but they also pump out copper, lithium, oil. They’ve got geothermal resources over there, they’ve got all sorts of resources in Nevada. So, the state is used to resources investment and they’re used to approving projects. It’s a great place to be.”

Time to focus

Asked if Astute might be considering any further acquisitions to build out its portfolio, Healy acknowledged that the company would look at anything that might be interesting. He has, in fact, reviewed a number of opportunities over the last few months.

“At the moment, it would have to be quite a significant opportunity, because we’re really trying to clean things up and demonstrate that focus we’ve told our shareholders we’re going to have,” Healy explains.

“We’ve said we’re going to be a critical minerals explorer. Our focus is going to be lithium, and then copper and gold. We’ve got our identity sorted. We’ve bedded down our projects in the lithium space, and we’re progressing those. Maybe we go back to that surface sampling data set I told you about, and we see what’s out there. It’s always a balance. 

“We’ve said we’re going to be a critical minerals explorer. Our focus is going to be lithium, and then copper and gold”

But I think, generally, people don’t want to see an explorer trying to look at the next shiny thing. I think they want to see some focus, they want to see us deliver on our promises.”

At the Resources Rising Stars conference on the Gold Coast last year, Healy told attendees that the then-Astro team held a new strategic focus, and that it would include lithium in Nevada. He said the company would go out and stake some new projects, which it did in March. Healy said those projects would then be drilled, as they were in April.

“I think we need to continue building that trust out there. Particularly because it’s Astro, it’s had a history that at times hasn’t been the best. So, let’s put some runs on the board.”

Keeping the coffers full

But even the best laid plans are nothing without the money to make them work.

At the end of the March quarter, Astute had $1.5 million cash in the bank. That amount was bolstered in April this year by $3.9 million from a placement to sophisticated investors, while another $416,000 came from a share purchase plan in May.

“The share purchase plan — we got a bit out of that, not as much as we hoped,” Healy says.

“We said, this is the new team, this is the new board, these are the new projects, this is the work we’ve done, this is the work we’re going to do”

“It was the existing shareholder base, and I think some of them were a little bit burned, historically, by Astro. But, look, it is what it is. We wanted to give them the opportunity. We said, this is the new team, this is the new board, these are the new projects, this is the work we’ve done, this is the work we’re going to do.”

Either way, Astute is well capitalised for the work that needs to be done. And with the influence of non-core assets like the Governor Broome Mineral Sands Project, the Needles Gold Project, and the Smoke Creek Diamonds Project — the latter of which the company is already looking to divest — there is potentially a very healthy nest egg that’s yet to deliver value.

Indeed, with the company’s name change now in full effect, Astute Metals may have finally completed its transformation. A certain trajectory has been set. The slingshot has been pulled back, as it were, and things are ready to fly.

Write to Oliver Gray at Mining.com.au 

Images: Astute Metals Ltd
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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.