As the world moves towards achieving zero emissions, electric motors will be at the core of the world’s clean energy future – largely driven by neodymium and praseodymium (NdPr) required to manufacture permanent magnet motors.

As such, this market sector is anticipated to grow significantly. ASX-listed Pensana Metals is taking a distinctly different approach to the development of its 84%-owned Longonjo NdPr Project in Angola, by leveraging its unique advantages to rapidly develop the project into a globally significant supplier of these magnet rare earths. CHANTELLE KOTZE spoke to newly appointed CEO TIM GEORGE about the project’s development.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 7, 2019
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here

Pensana Metals is over halfway through a prefeasibility study (PFS) on Longonjo, which it expects to complete by September.

Being undertaken by engineering firm Wood Group, the PFS will pave the way for the expedited development of Longonjo with first production expected in 2021, says George.

This follows on from Wood Group’s scoping study in 2017, which highlighted the benefits of the excellent regional infrastructure, the high NdPr grade, low mining costs, good metallurgy and the availability of low‐cost hydro‐electric power for the project.

The regional infrastructure is a unique advantage for Longonjo’s development and includes its close proximity to the Chinese-built US$1.83 billion Benguela rail line (only 4 km from site) which leads directly into the $2 million refurbished Atlantic Ocean port of Lobito.

Read more about mining in central Africa

This is in addition to the Pensana projects’ favourable high grade and close-to-surface carbonatite-hosted NdPr deposit. The thick blanket of high-grade mineralisation is weathered for the first 30 m below surface and extends over 1.5 km, making the mineralisation effectively free dig, with a low strip ratio, making for low cost mining.

It is these characteristics that George believes distinguishes Longonjo from other rare earth projects and which Pensana will leverage to rapidly develop a relatively low capital intensive, low technical risk, conventional open pit mine and on site minor comminution and flotation beneficiation plant to produce a high grade mineral product for export, he notes.

While the project hosts a number of individual rare earth oxides (REO) including significant amounts of lanthanum and cerium, the true value, according to George, lies with the neodymium and praseodymium rare earths, which alone account for 80% of the basket value from a pricing point of view. The interests in terms of consumption going forward also lies in the neodymium and praseodymium, explains George.

“Notwithstanding any growth in the electric vehicle market, when considering only the conversion from petrol and diesel to hybrid electric and fully electric vehicles, we still expect significant growth in consumption of NdPr needed to manufacture magnet motors for electric vehicles.

“We are also optimistic that the rare earths market has matured since the last price spike, when many rare earths projects failed because of the sudden drop in prices.

“Despite this, the fact that we will be operating off a lower cost base due to the nature of our operation and the existing modern infrastructure, should stand us in good stead if prices decrease from current levels,” says George.

The project has grown in leaps and bounds having recommenced exploration in April 2018. Reverse circulation and diamond drilling programmes have produced further high grade NdPr assay results and extended the thick blanket of NdPr mineralisation.

These drilling programmes resulted in the release of the company’s latest JORC-complaint inferred mineral resource estimate in February this year of 240 Mt grading at 1.60% REO including 0.35% NdPr for 3.85 Mt of REO including 840 000 tons of NdPr. An updated mineral resource estimate is underway to support the prefeasibility study.

The February 2019 mineral resource estimate is a more than seven‐fold increase in tons and contains well over four times the amount of NdPr compared with the maiden estimate reported in September 2017.

The development of Longonjo is being spearheaded by George, who joined the company in April 2019.

George is a veteran in the mining industry who brings with him over 30 years of experience in the mining sector, with broad experience in mining project development throughout Sub‐Saharan Africa and has spent a significant amount of time working in Angola’s diamond exploration sector.

His vision is to drive the Longonjo feasibility process towards realising production from this project.

“Longonjo is rapidly emerging as one of the front runners in the race to become a significant non‐Chinese supplier of these critical metals, in an industry where China controls over 96% of the world’s NdPr production,” says George.

The PFS will focus on the delivery of a low capital cost open pit mining and flotation operation able to position Pensana as a long-term supplier of NdPr concentrates to customers in China while benefiting from the surrounding infrastructure, which is expected to substantially reduce the capital cost and timeline to production.

George is of the view that given the work that has been completed to date and the relative simplicity of the operation, following the completion of a favourable PFS it should be possible to move immediately to front-end engineering design (FEED) and engineering, procurement and construction management (EPCM).

The government of Angola and its various ministries have been very supportive towards the development of Longonjo and are eager to diversify the economic base of the country, which has predominantly relied on oil and diamonds to date, with very little mineral exploration outside of this, explains George.

“Their support will be instrumental in getting this project off the starting blocks earlier and in line with our expedited development programme.”

While George admits that lots of work lay ahead in the development of Longonjo the company is focused on the projects expedited path to development.