DeBeers. Panning for Gold.

9 12 2010

I am struggling to keep up with my one-entry-a-week commitment. Last week, news reports of DeBeers and AngloGold Ashanti joint venture to search for gold off South Africa’s West Coast particularly caught my attention. Here’s what, the already one year old joint venture is about.

De Beers and AngloGold Ashanti committed themselves to prospecting and exploring one of Seafield Resource’s projects in New Zealand using the technology developed by DeBeers Marine to search for diamonds in water of a depth of 20 m to 200m off the Namibian coast. The results of the prospecting campaign were considered disappointing by Seafield.

Following this setback, De Beers and AngloGold Ashanti have taken their JV to the South African West Coast where gold is thought to have washed into the sea from rivers (millions of years ago) and are covered in sediment. Drilling is set to start in Q1 of 2011 and will aim at determining the economic viability of the deposit.

Seafield Resources, part of E Oppenheimer & Son International, has been exploring the coast of South Island in New Zealand through other projects. This week Seafield Resources was brought up in Trading Markets’ “Small Cap Stocks on the Move” following a recent 148% gain.

More on Marine Mining

Marine mining is fairly new, having taken off in the 60s and 70s. Current operations are mostly focused on tin dredging, gemstones, sands and gravels. The costs of marine mining have been prohibitive for many years, but marine mining to be becoming more attractive.

Other firms such as Nautilus Minerals (TSE:NUS) and Neptune Minerals (LON:NPM) are focusing their marine operations in the “other” ring of fire, a region known for its seafloor earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in Oceania.

Marine deposits may be easier and more economical to mine than land-deposits as they are exposed on the sea floor and do not require the removal of tons of overburden. They also require less staff (DeBeers’ ships have about 40 employees onboard) and present fewer risks to workers. These operations are also mobile and can be taken from a deposit to another.

When the Mud Slides…

12 10 2010

The Hungarian caustic sludge spill last week has gathered international attention. While we wonder if 2010 should be remembered as the year of the spill, let’s just see how red mud can be handled to reduce reliance on stockpiling and storage, which has unfortunately shown its limits. 

Red mud is produced during the transformation process of bauxite into alumina during the Bayer process. About 1.5 to 2 tonnes of red mud is generated for every tonne of alumina produced. This residue is highly alkaline (high pH, that is) and contains traces of various metal substances and other minor or trace amounts of heavy metals and radioactive isotopes. 

It has been estimated that in 2000, the global inventory of bauxite residue stood at about 2 billion tonnes and is likely to reach 4 billion tonnes by 2015 unless improved means of storage, rehabilitation and re-use options are developed in large scale.

Current Means of Disposal

For now, red mud is often stored on land for future rehabilitation or uses (with or without neutralising its toxicity).  This is done through either lagooning or dry stacking and accounts for 90% of alumina refineries surveyed by this study.  Red mud can also be discharged into mid-sea.  This accounts for less than 10% of cases surveyed by the study. The practice has steadily declined steadily since the 60s. The move towards dry stacking has been economically motivated by the need to reduce the land required for storage, minimise risks of caustic liquor release while maximising the recovery of liquor for the refinery.

The next big thing has a fancy name. Hyperbaric steam filtration is an emerging technology which discharges residue as a dry, granular material of low soda content. This gives red mud properties that allow long term storage, remediation and re-use.  This method is not economically viable at the moment but is undergoing trials in refineries in Germany, Japan and Venezuela.


Re-using red mud into new applications would solve the problems arising from its disposal and would create economic incentives to treat its toxicity. Since the 60s, several hundreds of researches have sought new end uses for red mud but emissions of radon coming from the mud as well as the low value of materials that red mud could be substituting have hindered its economic viability. Red mud can be used in metallurgy (for the recovery of iron, vanadium, chromium, rare earths and titanium dioxide), catalysis, and soil remediation.

The most promising uses would be in construction materials such as cement, bricks, roofing tiles and glass ceramics. A few examples include the Jawaharlal Nehru Aluminium Research Design and Development Centre’s work on ceramics and Jamaica’s National Work’s Agency’s reliance on geopolymers in order to use red mud in road construction. Other uses can be found here.

Mining Exploration: Driven by Algorithms.

24 05 2010

A Québec company, Exploration Azimut (TSX-V: AZM) is relying on an approach based on algorithms to better target deposits worthy of further exploration. In a way, this may well be translating the success of Google’s PageRank onto the mining industry.

The company is using algorithms to target deposits of gold, platinum group metals, uranium and rare earths in the mining-friendly province of Québec. The system analyzes geoscientific data (often from governmental sources) that it manipulates in order to determine the most interesting exploration targets in function of the type of resources sought. The data used is available to others too. Still the sophistication of Azimut’s computer system, which took 15 years to develop, is a step ahead of competition according to the company. On 20 regional projects which had not been previously explored, 18 have given positive results. The company currently has a portfolio of 23 properties covering about 10,000 square kilometres in Québec, covering 10% of the total provincial mineral claims.

The reliance on the computer system has allowed the company to reduce the technical risks to mining exploration to a certain extent. Its financial approach is also based on cleverly managing the risks through joint ventures. Exploration Azimut has managed to conclude rather interesting deals with majors (think Rio Tinto and Goldcorp) and juniors alike. Agreements reached have often involved ceding up to 50% stake in a deposit in exchange of the acquiring firm committing to a certain level of exploration expenses to be carried along a specified time-frame and a cash payment. Partners may increase their stake by banking a feasibility study. In the last 6 years the company has signed no less than 26 agreements accounting to CAD $75 million in investments. In short, the company is self-financing. Not bad eh?

Carbon Capture Pilot Project in an Alcoa Aluminium Smelter

18 03 2010

Lately, Alcoa’s Deschambeault smelter has been the home of a pilot project aimed at capturing carbon emitted during the smelting process through a carbon capture technology relying on an enzyme rather than on a solvent as is more commonly used in carbon capture processes. The technology used has been developed by the Canadian firm CO2Solution.

Carbon capture is the process by which carbon emissions from large point sources are gathered to then be processed, transported and ultimately stored in an underground geological formation. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is seen by many as one of the key technologies to mitigate greenhouse gases emissions yet the costs associated with its deployment and its operation (the capture process is in itself energy intensive) have deterred companies to commit to CCS as it’s too costly in the absence of carbon pricing.

The technology developed by CO2 Solutions is different as it is based on a biotechnology rather than a solvent. This platform exploits the natural power of a biocatalyst (enzyme), carbonic anhydrase, which functions within humans and other mammals to manage CO2 during respiration. The company adapted the enzyme to work within a reactor to act as a lung in industrial environments in order to concentrate the emissions into pure CO2. The enzyme can also work in tandem to solvents to increase their C02 removal capacity by 30%. These results point to the ability of the enzyme to lower the capital and operating costs and reducing the energy requirements of the process.

CO2Solution’s web site does not disclose anything about the results of the pilot project. Yet this technology is quite promising; New York Times has made mention of its potential in the quest for clean coal.

CO2 Solutions is listed on the TSX-V under the ticker CST.