This article is a sponsored feature from Mining.com.au partner Bindi Metals Ltd. It is not financial advice. Talk to a registered financial expert before making investment decisions.
Niobium was discovered by English manufacturer and chemist Charles Hatchett in 1801, which at the time he called columbium.
However, it wasn’t until 220 years later – in October 2022 – that the light grey, crystalline, and ductile transition metal really popped up on most people’s radar.
That’s when $299 million market capitalisation company WA1 Resources (ASX:WA1) discovered a niobium-rare earth elements mineralised carbonatite system on its West Arunta ground in northern Western Australia near the border of the Northern Territory.
It certainly piqued the interest of diversified junior Bindi Metals (ASX:BIM), which is actively positioning itself to be a global player in the not-so-well-understood niobium market.
As Bindi Metals Executive Director Henry Renou explains to Mining.com.au: “We’re looking to capitalise on this fast-growing market.”
Renou tells this news service that Bindi Metals is uniquely positioned — it has a focus on an important and in-demand transition metal with a project located in a well-endowed mining region in North America.
The company recently acquired a 100% interest in the Schryburt Lake REE-Nb Project in Canada, which the Ontario Geological Survey (OGS) in its 2021-22 Exploration Review recommended as a ‘high prospective’ rare earth and niobium hosting carbonatite. The OGS is the steward of Ontario’s public geoscience data.
The Executive Director says: “Niobium is still a relatively unknown metal despite WA1’s discovery. We understand that these carbonatite intrusions host major niobium deposits and we’re targeting these types of systems.
Since WA1’s discovery, there has been a growing focus on niobium exploration projects and the market is waiting for the next big carbonatite-hosted discovery as these systems are a major source of this critical metal. Bindi is well-positioned for this next big discovery with Schryburt Lake.”
“We understand that these carbonatite intrusions host major niobium deposits and we’re targeting these types of systems”
Over the past few years, the world’s focus has been on rare earths such as neodymium-praseodymium (NdPr) — which are critical to manufacture permanent magnets. However, as Bindi’s Executive Director tells this news service, niobium, while often overlooked, forms in large deposits hand-in-hand with rare earths within these carbonatite systems.
NdPr magnets are vital to electric vehicles (EV), wind turbines, and everyday electronics and the NdPr oxides market is set to increase at 10% CAGR during 2020 to 2030. Niobium’s growth is poised to follow particularly as the global steel industry continues to grow.
As Renou explains, it is amid this competitive landscape that Bindi Metals is actively making moves to become a major global player in the growing niobium market.
“In these carbonatite hosted systems, the success rate for defining a resource is approximately 1 out of 10. If you translate that into exploration risk, it’s very low compared to other precious or base metal projects which have a success rate closer to 1 in 10,000 for the discovery of a mineral deposit. So, Bindi has put in place a highly experienced team with extensive knowledge of carbonatite hosted systems, to explore the Schryburt Lake project.
We are off to a great start with high-grade rare earths and niobium discovered at surface which has positioned us to make a very significant discovery at Schryburt. The majority of these carbonatites are explored for rare earths. With the increase in demand for REO (rare earths oxide), it’s obviously a very important part of the suite as well as niobium in these deposits.
These rare earths have different applications, but are dominantly used for electric vehicles, wind turbines, and technologies for the green energy transition. The high-value metals within that whole suite are the neodymium (Nd) and praseodymium (Pr).
When we refer to Nd-Pr, these metals carry the majority of the value of the metals in that whole REO suite, and that’s all to do with green energy transition. For niobium, it’s mainly used as a strengthening agent as a steel alloy and reduces the overall weight significantly.
“The market fundamentals look pretty solid for niobium”
It is a strengthening agent that helps reduce costs for steel production. But it also has applications in fast-charging lithium-ion batteries, as well as increasing the efficiency of other green energy technologies. So, it’s not just the steel alloy, it’s being used for other applications, but the important part is it’s about $45,000 a tonne, so it’s very valuable.”
Renou adds the price has been increasing rapidly over the years, largely due to China restricting certain rare metals, coupled with pressures on demand.
“The market fundamentals look pretty solid for niobium.”
With this rising commodity price environment in mind, in mid-May, Bindi increased its interest in the Schryburt Lake Project to 100%. The project is made up of 318 contiguous single-cell mining claims covering a total area of about 62.5km-square. It is located some 128km north of Pickle Lake in northern Ontario.
Schryburt is located within the ‘highly prospective’ Western Superior Province, which is also home to major advanced REE projects including VR Resources’ (TSX:VVR) Hecla-Kilmer asset and Geomega Resources’ (TSX:GMA) Montviel project.
Renou says the potential for the Schryburt Lake Project to be a game-changer for Bindi is enormous considering niobium’s wide-ranging applications in advanced technology, as well as in steelmaking.
It is one of a suite of commodities identified by the Australian government as critical minerals (or elements) — those considered vital for the well-being of the world’s economies, yet whose supply may be at risk of disruption.
Niobium is considered a ‘strategic metal’ by a number of other governments such as the US, UK, and Russia due to its widespread use in defence and aerospace. It is a ductile refractory metal highly resistant to heat and wear. Like tantalum, niobium is resistant to corrosion, owing to the formation of a surface oxide layer.
According to Geoscience Australia, about 90% of niobium use is attributed to the steel industry — predominantly as a micro-alloy with iron. The addition of minute, relatively cheap, amounts of niobium (much less than 1%) significantly increases the strength and decreases the weight of steel products. Uses for superalloys include blades in jet engines within the aeronautic industry and gas turbines in the energy industry.
This has been the catalyst for the development and growth in its use of steels over the past few decades and is poised to remain the driver in the years to come.
“The benefits are significant for niobium as a steel alloy and there is currently a big market for the metal, for which there are only a few major producers that dominate production”
Renou says: “The benefits are significant for niobium as a steel alloy and there is currently a big market for the metal, for which there are only a few major producers that dominate production. Niobium additions in steel significantly increase its strength, so less steel is required overall, which can reduce costs substantially.”
This results in more economic, beneficial products in the automotive industry, where weight savings result in boosted performance and fuel reduction; construction where it’s used in beams in buildings and bridges, in oil and gas pipelines and power generators, amongst other uses.
Niobium also becomes a superconductor at very low temperatures. When alloyed with titanium (NbTi) or tin (Nb3Sn), it produces the superconducting magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) equipment and particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN1.
Other uses include in glass for applications such as corrective spectacles and camera lenses; within jewellery; in prosthetics and medical implants; in niobium capacitors in electronic circuits; in sodium vapour lamps; and in cutting tools.
Blown away by Blue Jay
Renou notes that while these markets and demand for niobium are well-established, the production and supply side of the sector are only emerging.
The world is in dire need of projects such as Schryburt Lake to come online. And so far, the future looks promising.
Bindi Metals recently released results from fieldwork and rock chip sampling at Schryburt in which 45 rock chip samples were collected across the carbonatite intrusive in areas of limited outcrop. The initial surface sampling results have returned ‘high-grade’ REE and niobium assays from the newly discovered Blue Jay prospect up to 35,896 ppm (3.6%) TREO and 6,594 ppm (0.7%) Nb2O5, which has so far illustrated ‘high-grade’ surface REE-Nb mineralisation over a 110m-by-80m area with more than 20,000 ppm (2%) TREO.
Next, the company expects to have the radiometric and magnetic surveys finalised. Further results are expected in mid-August, which will lead into the company’s drill program, poised to kick off late August/early September.
Renou adds: “Blue Jay is a high-grade REE-Nb discovery and looks to have significant potential scale, highlighted in the preliminary magnetics, suggesting it’s an extensive mineralised dyke system controlled by a concentric structure on the northern end of the carbonatite diatreme and we’re going to be busy at Blue Jay testing this target with drilling.
Bindi is also fully funded for the exploration program that we’ve got in place.”
Other prospects now defined at Schryburt Lake include Goldfinch, Starling, Blackbird, and Hummingbird.
“Blue Jay is a high-grade REE-Nb discovery and looks to have significant potential scale…”
Notably, the Goldfinch prospect is located on historical trenches with previous results of up to 7.6m @ 3,033 ppm Nb2O5 and grab samples of up to 18,200 ppm (1.82%) Nb2O5. Rock chip assays here returned a high NdPr percentage of TREO at an average 25%, with all results between 24.1% and 25.8%.
The Starling prospect also has historical drilling intersections up to 56,500 ppm (5.7%) TREO with no niobium assays.
Bindi has completed an orientation biogeochemical survey (gridded on 600m line spacing by 100m sample spacing) in order to determine the viability of this technique on the project to define REE and niobium anomalies. A total of 130 samples were collected across 4 east-west lines and a single north-south line across the carbonatite intrusion, with results still due out. This method has been used to great effect across Ontario and Quebec in Canada for a variety of commodities and is utilised in areas of glacial terrain that inhibits the development of a weathered soil profile as higher concentrations of metals will be preserved in tree bark over mineral deposits.
Full results of the helicopter-supported magnetics and radiometrics survey as well as results from a hyperspectral survey at Schryburt Lake are expected shortly. Planning for the maiden drill program is underway, and discussions with First Nations on drill permits are progressing well. Planning for further surface sampling at the project is underway.
The Executive Director says with these other prospects now defined, the company is confident of Schryburt Lake one day being recognised as a globally significant operation.
There is certainly room in the market for emerging players like Bindi Metals.
Longer term, he adds Bindi’s growth strategy could include executing deals or partnerships rather than developing the project through to production on its own. Being located in a highly prospective region of Canada there is no shortage of interested third parties looking around.
“We want to explore it ourselves but obviously, if we make a world class discovery and then go down the development path, we could potentially look at a joint venture partner, or sell the project. If we look at the Niobec deposit in Quebec, which shares many similarities to rare earth and niobium mineralisation at Schryburt Lake, this deposit was sold by Iamgold to Magris Resources for US$530 million, so these deposits are highly valuable.”
At present, the global niobium market is highly consolidated, with the top 2 players contributing more than 90% to overall production and revenue.
“We’re trying to position ourselves to not only be a global niobium player but also a significant rare earths contributor”
The world’s largest producer of niobium is Brazilian company Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM), a subsidiary of the Moreira Salles Group. CBMM operates the Araxá niobium mine in Brazil — the world’s largest mine. The company produces about 85% of the world’s niobium supply.
There is also the Niobec underground mine in Québec, which has been operating for 30 years and is North America’s only source of pyrochlore, currently producing some 5,000tpa of niobium metal contained in ferroniobium — 8-10% of world consumption.
Renou adds: “We’re trying to position ourselves to not only be a global niobium player but also a significant rare earths contributor. It’s important to point out that Schryburt does have the potential to host a very large rare earths resource as well, and as it stands we’re well on our way to cementing our position on a global scale.”
Write to Adam Orlando at Mining.com.au
Images: Bindi Metals Ltd & iStock