A lesser understood, yet essential section of the resources sector is mineral sands, with several ASX-listed plays geared to take advantage of forecast supply gaps in the coming years.
The mineral sand suite is critical to numerous products found in everyday life from toothpaste to tiles, to the paint you put on your walls or the titanium metal used in human implants or found in aircraft and golf clubs.
Various minerals are included in the mineral sand suite, but the ones primarily sought from mining are ilmenite, leucoxene, rutile and zircon.
These are also known as heavy minerals and the ones we will focus on in this guide.
Heavy minerals fall into two categories: titanium minerals (ilmenite, leucoxene and rutile) and zircon.
Where are mineral sands found?
Minerals sands are usually found in beach environments including old beaches, rivers or dune sands.
Geoscience Australia claims the minerals initially grew as crystals in rocks such as basalt or granite. These rocks then eroded over millions of years.
The harder minerals were washed out to the sea by heavy rainfall and streams.
They were then carried back to the shore by waves, while the wind helped concentrate them by blowing away the lighter sand.
After millions of years, these processes eventually created a large mineral sands deposit on the beach.
Mineral sands deposits can also be found inland and below surface. This is due to sea levels changing and the shifting of shorelines over the years resulting in mineral sands accumulating in different areas.
How are mineral sands mined?
Mineral sands operations are usually open pit and mined via either dredging or excavation.
Dredging, known as wet mining, involves creating a pond for the deposit. The dredge then digs the ore which is sent to the floating concentrator behind it.
The dry mining method is the most common and uses traditional earthmoving equipment to mine the ore.
In contrast, dredging is dependent on water availability and ground conditions.
Discovery of titanium minerals and history of use
Titanium is the world’s ninth most abundant element.
It is believed amateur geologist William Gregor first discovered titanium minerals in the late 1700s in Cornwall, England.
He noticed the black magnetic sand looked like gun powder. A few years later in 1795 German chemist Martin Klaproth discovered titanium in rutile.
It wasn’t until 1910, that a 99.9% pure titanium was isolated from the minerals. This was followed by the development of the Kroll process to create titanium metal.
Titanium’s use in pigment began in the early 20th Century when an American manufacturer introduced it to the industry. Prior to titanium, white pigments used in paint were white lead, zinc white and lithopone.
Today, titanium pigment is the primary pigment used for providing whiteness, brightness and opacity in paint as well as plastics and paper.
When used in pigment, rutile, ilmenite and leucoxene are beneficiated by pigment producers to create the final material for use in paints etc.
History of zircon use
Zircon is found in mineral sand deposits with titanium minerals and can account from less than 2% to 50% of the mineral assemblage.
Geoscience Australia describes zircon as a zirconium silicate mineral, which is often found in small quantities in many rocks.
Zircon occurs naturally in many colours including white, orange, yellow, red, blue and green. However, it predominantly has a reddish-brown appearance.
The mineral is mined for its zirconium content and is believed to have been used or identified in biblical times.
German chemist Klaproth is again recognised for identifying zirconium within zircon in the late 1700s.
Zirconium was first moulded into an impure metal in 1824 and this was updated using the Kroll process, which generated a pure zirconium metal.
At present, zircon is mostly mined for use as an opacifier in ceramics – giving ceramics and sanitary ware that white, opaque appearance.
Zircon is also sought for its resistance to corrosion and chemical attack. It is refractory and hard.
As such, it is used in nuclear applications, moulds for molten metals, as well as processing into chemicals and metals for niche and specialist applications.
Mineral sand grades and assemblage
Ilmenite, leucoxene and rutile are titanium minerals of varying grades with ilmenite having the lowest purity ranging between 35-65% titanium dioxide compared to rutile which is the highest.
Although possessing the lowest titanium dioxide, ilmenite is the most abundant titanium mineral – accounting for 89% of the suite, according to the USGS.
The titanium dioxide content in leucoxene sits between 65-90%, while rutile contains about 95% and also has less iron and other impurities.
Ilmenite is often beneficiated to create a synthetic rutile product or titanium slag.
Meanwhile, zircon is generally a by-product or co-product of mineral sands mining.
The amounts of titanium and zircon minerals differs among mineral sand deposits.
However, when explorers are looking to make a decision to mine, it is preferable to have higher amounts of the materials that attract premium prices such as rutile and zircon.
Titanium mineral and zircon end-uses
The vast majority, about 90%, of titanium minerals are mined and exported to pigment manufacturers globally.
Pigment manufacturers further process the minerals to create titanium dioxide pigment, which is incorporated in paints, plastics, paper, ink, toothpaste, medicine tablets and some food. It provides that already mentioned whiteness and opacity.
The purer titanium mineral rutile is also used to produce titanium sponge which undergoes further treatment to generate a titanium metal.
This metal is light weight while also being extremely strong and resistant to corrosion. The metal actually has the highest strength-to-density ratio of any metallic element. These properties make it ideal for aircraft, space, defence, medical and sporting industries.
However, traditional processes for creating the metal are cost intensive and laborious keeping it reserved for speciality end-uses rather than mainstream such as cars and bikes etc.
As mentioned previously, zircon is primarily used as an opacifier in ceramics and sanitaryware.
In this end-use, zircon is mainly incorporated in the glaze of ceramic tiles, with this sector accounting for half of zircon’s global consumption.
A growing end-use for zircon is in chemicals and metals for niche markets including medicine, technology, and catalytic converters in cars.
Due to its high melting point and resistance to other chemicals, zircon is also incorporated in refractory moulds and special castings for steel and glass manufacturers.
Mineral sands production by region
Australia is one of the world’s largest ilmenite producing countries – behind China, South Africa and Canada in 2019.
Although Australia’s ilmenite production in 2019 was behind these nations, it hosts most of the reserves with an estimated 250Mt (32% of global reserves).
World ilmenite reserves total 770Mt.
The higher purity rutile is largely produced in the US, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Kenya as well as Australia and Mozambique, India and Ukraine and Senegal.
World rutile reserves were 47Mt in 2019.
Australia’s share of these is more than 60%.
Combined, in 2018, 7.4Mt of titanium dioxide was produced worldwide.
In zircon, Australia dominates production as well as reserves. The USGS estimated Australia had 42Mt in reserves in 2019 – accounting for more than half of the 62Mt in global reserves.
In 2019, Australia produced 550,000t of zircon with South Africa the second largest producer of 370,000t.
Globally, in 2018 it is believed about 1.2Mt of zircon was produced.
In reserves, Australia hosts 68% of all those identified globally.
One of the world’s largest mineral sands producers is London Stock Exchange listed Kenmare, which supplies about 7% of the world’s titanium minerals from its Moma mine in Mozambique and is expected to account for 10% of global output from 2021.
The company estimates global titanium mineral production is worth about US$4.5 billion annually, with the titanium dioxide pigment supply chain generating annual revenues of US$15 billion.
Zircon sand mining is estimated at US$1.7 billion annually with its end use markets worth many multiples of this.
Mineral sands consumption
As with most other commodities, China is the leading consumer of titanium minerals and zircon.
Both titanium and zircon demand are driven by urbanisation, construction and industrial production.
Urbanisation and construction require ceramics and paint.
Behind China, the US is the second largest global importer of titanium minerals which it uses to make titanium dioxide pigment and titanium metal for the defence, aerospace, space and medical industries.
Since major mineral sands miner Iluka Resources (ASX: ILU) closed its operations in Virginia in 2016, the US has seen a decrease in titanium mineral production.
The country’s imports have risen from 74% in 2010 to 95% in 2019 – with a value ranging from A$470 million to A$1.2 billion.
US pigment plants have capacity to generate 1.37Mt of pigment, compared to China’s capacity of 3.25Mt and global 7.66Mt.
In the zircon market, China is the largest consumer.
The country is by far the largest tile manufacturer globally.
As well as being the largest tile manufacturer, China is the biggest ceramics consumer due to a preference for the material as floor coverings.
3D and automated tile printing is expected to increase the variety and number of tiles produced and, subsequently, demand for zircon.
Other growing end uses for zircon include building exteriors as well as roof tiles where it can increase solar reflection and reduce heat.
Iluka noted the zircon chemicals sector has also grown in recent years. Its increased consumption in this area is driven by electronics, communications, energy efficiency and emission controls.
Again, China dominates zircon chemical production and demand.
Mineral sands prices
Unlike metals traded on the London Metal Exchange or gold and silver, the mineral sands market is opaque with prices set by miners and buyers.
The USGS estimates ilmenite (minimum 54% titanium dioxide) free on board out of Australia was fetching US$173/t in 2017.
Rutile (95% titanium dioxide) attracted US$740/t in the same period and about US$1,100/t in 2020.
The latest year for zircon pricing the USGS has published revealed it fetched about US$975/t FOB out of Australia in 2017.
However, the report did note that the average unit value for zircon concentrate imports and exports “rose slightly” in 2019 over 2018 levels.
In its latest half year report, Iluka claimed the impact of COVID-19 was evident in its 20% decline in mineral sands volumes for the first six months of 2020.
However, the company pointed out the decline was less than experienced during previous periods of market weakness.
Although some of this was due to cost cuts, Iluka claims previous zircon price increases had been sustainable.
Iluka’s weighted average received price for its zircon for 1H 2020 was US$1,354/t – down 6% on the six months ending December 2019.
Following a different trajectory was the rutile price, with Iluka commanding about US$1,246/t – an increase of 7% on 2H 2019.
The company’s consolidated mineral sands revenue for 1H 2020 was A$456.6 million, which was a decrease of 16.3% on 1H 2019’s A$545.6 million.
Prior to COVID-19, independent industry analysts TZ Minerals International predicted in February this year the average zircon price would hover at US$1,480/t in 2021 – growing to US$1,540/t in 2022, before dipping to about US$1,495/t in 2024 and beyond.
Rutile was forecast to attract US$1,218/t in 2021 and decline to US$1,138/t by 2024.
The analyst anticipates ilmenite will command US$260/t in 2021 and rise to US$283/t by 2023 and drop slightly to US$274/t in 2024.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic volatility it has sparked, the mineral sands space has fared better than previous downturns due to more sustainable pricing and tight supply.
Kenmare expects the supply-demand balance will be maintained as producers curb output to prevent flooding the market.
In China, zircon consumers – largely tile manufacturers – have resumed operations, although they were operating around 50-60% of pre-pandemic levels for many months.
Despite lower operating capacity, Iluka stated its customers’ inventories were low as they focused on conserving cash.
The ilmenite market has been bolstered by limited global supplies – facilitated by shutdowns across China’s domestic mines.
Additionally, primary consumers, pigment producers, have continued to operate and deplete their inventories which were already low.
However, miners were anticipating a slowdown in titanium mineral and zircon demand for the remainder of 2020.
Iluka noted pigment manufacturer Chemours had failed to take a scheduled shipment for titanium dioxide minerals, while another unnamed customer has reduced its September shipment.
Despite the near-term COVID-19 pinch the outlook for mineral sand producers is positive with supply gaps expected to emerge.
Analysts are forecasting an ilmenite shortage in the next three-to-four years.
Kenmare noted the medium and long-term fundamentals for titanium minerals and zircon remained strong due to the emerging supply constraints.
In February 2020, TZMI predicted demand for zircon will rise up to 3% year-on-year, while existing production will decline at about 5% per annum over the next decade.
New supplies are not expected to meet this increased demand. Meanwhile, TZMI anticipates the global rutile market will remain tight with any potential new rutile production unable to meet underlying demand.
COVID-19 and GDP present unique picture for mineral sands
Historically pigment demand, and consequently titanium mineral consumption, is linked to GDP.
It is also seasonal – experiencing the strongest demand during North America’s summer when home renovations etc are more prevalent.
However, with the onset of COVID-19 a unique picture has presented.
GDP was drastically down worldwide in 2020. But, with more people housebound and government stimulus incentives, smaller scale home renovations have continued – potentially mitigating some of the impact of a negative global GDP which was predicted to reach -4.4% in 2020.
This was according to the International Monetary Fund’s October 2020 World Economic Outlook report.
In Australia, the Reserve Bank’s November Monetary Policy Statement reveals an expected 4% contraction for the country in 2020.
Both global and domestic GDP are expected to rebound in 2021. The IMF anticipates global growth will strengthen to 5.2%, while the RBA expects Australia’s GDP will increase to 5%.
Both entities caution this is dependent on further virus outbreaks, resultant restrictions, and vaccine roll-outs.
In comparison to the drastic fall in GDP, the erosion of mineral sands pricing and production has been much milder.
Additionally, post COVID-19, government stimulus programs are anticipated in military and infrastructure, which will drive mineral sands demand – particularly in the US and China.
Mineral sands stocks on the ASX
Mineral sands stocks on the ASX poised to take advantage of improved market conditions include:
Astron Corporation (ASX: ATR)
Domiciled in Hong Kong, Astron Corporation is focused on developing its two wholly-owned mineral sands projects Donald in Australia, and Niafarang in Senegal, West Africa.
The flagship Donald project in Victoria’s Murray Basin is considered one of the largest known zircon and titanium resources in the world. It is projected to produce 615,000tpa of heavy mineral concentrate (HMC) in stage one and up to a combined 1Mtpa of raw HMC products in a stage two development.
In May, the company completed a pilot of 1,000t of Donald mineral sands ore material treated in a wet concentrator plant in Queensland. An updated feasibility study is anticipated for completion shortly.
The company was granted a mining licence over the Niafarang high-grade mineral sands deposit in 2017 and said it is working towards commencing site establishment programs by late 2020.
It also recently applied for an exploration licence further afield from the current mining licence area.
Base Resources (ASX: BSE)
Another mineral sands miners on the ASX is Base Resources, which has the Kwale mine in Kenya and Toliara project in Madagascar.
The Kwale operation just achieved its first full year of production from the South Dune deposit, producing a greater-than-expected total of 78,920t of rutile, 355,093t of ilmenite and 31,657t of zircon during fiscal 2020.
In August, Base reduced its resources and reserves statement for the deposit due to mining depletion, now estimated at 38Mt containing 1.1Mt of in-situ HM, with ore reserves of 22Mt containing 900,000t of in-situ HM.
Meanwhile, a pre-feasibility study commenced for mining the North Dune deposit with completion anticipated in “early 2021”.
At Toliara, Base completed a definitive feasibility study (DFS) in late 2019, confirming the project as a robust operation with ore reserves of 586Mt at 6.5% HM supporting an initial 33-year mine life. By August 2020, the company had commenced front-end engineering design and lender due diligence.
Recent drill results also revealed significant additional high-grade mineralisation extending beyond the current mineral resources estimate (but within the existing mining lease), showing the potential for a “considerably longer” mine life than the 33 years assumed in the DFS.
However, COVID-19 measures have delayed on-the-ground activity and government engagement on the Toliara project.
“With the effective shutdown of government, international travel restrictions and broader COVID-19 measures and impacts both in Madagascar and globally, the final investment decision (FID) to proceed with development of the Toliara project has been delayed with FID now unlikely to occur before September 2021,” Base managing director Tim Carstens said in August.
Diatreme Resources (ASX: DRX)
Diatreme Resources owns the advanced Cyclone zircon project in WA and is currently in discussions with potential partners to develop the asset.
A 2018 DFS showed the project had an NPV of $113 million. It currently has all approvals in place and is “shovel ready” with capital outlay of $135 million estimated.
Cyclone has a JORC resource of 203Mt at 2.3% HM, containing 4.7Mt HM and 1.26Mt zircon, and the DFS confirmed the project has sufficient reserves to support a 14-year mining operation at 10Mtpa with the potential for expansion.
The project boasts low transportation costs involving HMC freighted to Port Adelaide via truck and rail before being shipped to China. Development options being considered include having a mineral separation plant either in Australia or China to produce final products, or the direct sale of HMC within Australia or offshore.
Iluka Resources (ASX: ILU)
Dominating ASX-listed mineral sands plays is Iluka Resources, which has operations and projects in Australia, the US, and Sierra Leone.
The company’s Jacinth-Ambrosia operation in South Australia is the world’s largest zircon mine, while its Sierra Rutile operation in Sierra Leone is the largest rutile mine.
According to a recent presentation, Iluka’s mineral sands business has generated $2.4 billion in free cash flow over the last 10 years.
During the first half of 2020, the company produced 69,000t of zircon and 10,000t of rutile from Jacinth-Ambrosia and 62,000t of rutile from Sierra Rutile. Another operation, Cataby in south west WA, produced 23,000t of zircon and 12,000t of rutile.
Iluka spun-out its BHP iron ore royalty business to focus on being a standalone mineral sands producer and explorer.
Image Resources (ASX: IMA)
Image Resources owns the Boonanarring operation in Perth’s north. The company claims Boonanarring is a “uniquely rich deposit” with a grade of 8.9% HM and 27.5% zircon in HM.
The mine achieved its first full year of production in 2019.
At the end of December 2020, Image had completed its last HMC shipment – making its total calendar year sales 310,000t and within its previous guidance range of 300,000-330,000t announced in January 2020.
Boosting HMC sales was a record December quarter, with Image shipping 110,000t of HMC. The company expects record CY 2020 revenue despite COVID-19 impacts.
In addition, Image is continuing prioritised exploration under the banner of Project MORE, which aims to assess areas of mineralisation within a 10km radius of Boonanarring’s wet concentration plant to identify new resources for conversion to reserves. Image’s goal is to add two years of ore reserves to Boonanarring’s mine life before the end of December.
Mineral Commodities (ASX MRC)
Although focused on advancing its graphite assets for the battery industry, Mineral Commodities has been mining mineral sands from its Tormin project in South Africa’s western cape for several years.
In early July, Mineral Commodities was given the greenlight to expand mining and processing at Tormin.
The new approvals grant access to the high-grade Northern Beaches, which has a JORC resource of 2.5Mt at 23.5% THM, as well as the Inland Strand area including Western Strandline.
In late August, the company announced a massive increase in Tormin total mineral resources to 106Mt at 12.4% THM, including a maiden 22.8Mt resource grading at 20.9% THM from within the expanded mining area of the Western Strandline.
The company began mining the first pit of the Western Strandline section in September and said site infrastructure and civil construction for the mobilisation of the primary beach concentrator module to the Northern Beaches had begun.
MRG Metals (ASX: MRQ)
Relative newcomer to the mineral sands scene is MRG Metals, which cemented ownership of its highly prospective tenements in Mozambique less than two years ago.
Since locking-in the acquisition, MRG has been busy on the ground – exploring its new assets efficiently and cost effectively.
This resulted in a massive maiden resource of 1.42Bt at 5.2% total heavy mineral at Koko Massava within Corridor Central.
MRG chairman Andrew Van Der Zwan explained the company was looking for several factors when deciding which deposit to mine, including either a very high grade or a greater valuable mineral assemblage – or both.
He added the company’s strategy was to shore up an operation with “exceptional economics” that can be profitable in any operating environment.
A target Mr Van Der Zwan is excited to get busy exploring is the Linhuane tenement which is under application and previously explored by Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO).
Rio carried out shallow drilling which uncovered numerous 10m intervals with grades ranging between 5% THM and 25% THM.
With grades like that, Mr Van Der Zwan described the tenement as a “game changer” with “enormous potential”.
Two other new targets MRG is raring to explore are Marao and Marruca, with MRG securing the final exploration permits in December.
Meanwhile, MRG is methodically exploring all of its targets across Corridor Central and Corridor South and gaining more knowledge of the mineralisation it is dealing with.
MRG is hoping to take advantage of a nearby proposed multi-billion dollar Chongoene Development Corridor project which will comprise a 150Mtpa multipurpose deep water seaport.
This port will be only 10km from the southern boundary of Corridor South. The project also includes a proposed track line that will run through or adjacent to MRG’s Corridor Central and Corridor South projects.
Sheffield Resources (ASX: SFX)
In WA’s far north, Sheffield Resources has the advanced Thunderbird project, which is fully permitted.
This project is a step closer to development after Yansteel and Sheffield executed binding agreements in January 2021.
Yansteel has agreed to pay $130.1 million to acquire 50% of the asset. Sheffield managing director Bruce McFadzean said the transaction will fund stage one development of the project.
Once the joint venture has officially been formed a final bankable feasibility study will be completed.
A final investment decision is expected in 2021, with Yansteel and Sheffield working towards this goal.
Sovereign Metals (ASX: SVM)
Rutile explorer Sovereign Metals is progressing its flagship Kasiya deposit in Malawi, which it believes could be “globally significant”.
Sovereign describes Kasiya as a saprolite-hosted deposit, with rutile occurring within the top 8m of surface. Results from exploration at Kaiya to-date have identified 16km of strike and widths of up to 6km.
The total mineralised footprint is currently 66sq km and mineralisation remains open along strike.
Resource definition and regional exploration is continuing at Kasiya with a view to unveiling a maiden mineral resource estimate during the current March 2021 quarter.
Latest assays have revealed 13m at 1.47% rutile, including 4m at 1.71% rutile; 8m at 1.08% rutile, including 3m at 1.72% rutile; and 12m at 1.33% rutile, including 5m at 1.64% rutile.
Metallurgical test work on Kasiya ore has generated 96% titanium dioxide product. Further feasibility level test work is underway to build on Sovereign’s understanding of Kasiya ore.
Sovereign predicts fundamentals for the global rutile market remaining “robust” with current and forecast pricing remaining strong.
Strandline Resources (ASX: STA)
Another WA mineral sands explorer with an advanced flagship asset is Strandline Resources, which owns the Coburn project.
An updated DFS revealed the asset has an NPV of $705 million, although a scoping study “extension case” shows a potential mine life expansion to 37.5 years, increasing NPV to $825 million.
The construction ready project has locked in 72% of its forecast revenue under various binding offtake agreements.
In August last year, Strandline announced an $18.5 million share placement with proceeds being used to fast-track Coburn’s development including front end detailed design, the procurement of long-lead items, site establishment and early construction works.
The funds are in addition to the $150 million loan facility recently provided by Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF). Securing another $100 million for project development is underway with negotiations continuing with shortlisted lenders.
Strandline is targeting first production before the end of the September quarter in 2022.
The company is also advancing the Fungoni and Tajiri mineral sands projects in Tanzania.
Tao Commodities (ASX: TAO)
The newest mineral sands entrant on the ASX is Tao Commodities, which revealed in September it was acquiring the large-scale Titan project in the US.
Of note, the project is only 15km from the US’ largest titanium consuming plant Chemours’ New Johnsonville pigment facility.
With mineral sands – particularly titanium minerals – deemed critical in the US, Tao is hoping to take advantage of generating a domestic supply in proximity to all pigment producers and metal plants.
Previous explorers of the project include major pigment producer DuPont and BHP.
More than 200 holes have been drilled at the project between 1960 and 1990.
Tao claims the main deposit is high-grade at 3.6% HMS comprising 15% zircon, 5% rutile and 60% high titanium dioxide ilmenite.
Maiden drilling in the December 2020 quarter confirmed previous results.
Highlight results were 47.2m at 3.69% THM, 35.1m at 3.04% THM, and 32m at 3.12% THM.
These were all shallow holes and contained higher grade intervals assaying between 5.47% THM and 8.16% THM.
The company’s strategy behind the acquisition is to re-establish a major US titanium and zircon asset ahead of expected government infrastructure and military stimulus programs post-COVID-19.
Titanium Sands (ASX: TSL)
Titanium Sands acquired the Mannar Island heavy mineral sands project in Sri Lanka in 2018 and expanded its tenure in March 2020. It is an ilmenite feedstock project with minor rutile, zircon and garnet credits.
A scoping study released in June confirmed the potential for an “economically robust, long-life major dredging project” based on a single dredge, a primary concentrator, and a mineral separation plant.
The study showed initial production would most likely occur on a 10km by 2km zone containing 93Mt at 5.24% THM – about 35% of the project’s current resource estimate of 265Mt at 4.38% THM.
The company said the study also indicated the potential for second or third dredge operations with expanded processing facilities offering “even better capital and operating efficiencies”.
Titanium Sands still needs to receive regulatory approval from Sri Lankan regulators, including the submission of an environmental impact statement and the granting of mining and transport/export licences, as well as secure finance for the project.
In late July, the company said it has been in talks with potential offtake partners from China, Japan, India and the United Arab Emirates but no formal agreements have been announced as yet. In September, Titanium Sands released a revised resource estimate for Mannar Island, adding garnet.
The company said more detailed scoping study results will be released in early 2021.
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