With a foundation established and built on doing business in the Democratic Republic of Congo nearly 20 years ago, mining reagent specialist Axis House has over the decades emerged as leader in its field of expertise in the country.
Today, with a sound understanding of the DRC’s minerals processing needs, primarily in cobalt and copper, and the consequential requirement to deliver the highest production grades and volumes to global markets, the company is well positioned to grow exponentially in the coming years.
This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa, Edition 4 2018
Axis House boasts extensive experience working the DRC – nearly 20 years as a company and upwards of 25 years as individuals.
At the time, many would have considered doing business in the country a brave move when it was still believed to be a hostile working environment with significant logistical challenges.
In hindsight, the company’s early stage entrance into the country was a very smart move.
The DRC’s mining sector has grown significantly over the past two decades on the back of its abundant copper and cobalt resources, which has directly contributed to Axis Houses’ growth as well.
“We have built strong relationships with all the major players and now have contracts in place with most operators in the country,” Axis House MD Trevor McLean-Anderson reveals.
“We’ve seen a lot of change in the DRC over the years – which has transformed from just a single state-owned mining entity (Gécamines) to the entrance and establishment of many multi-nationals building large-scale mines from conception where on-site meetings were held in temporary containers,” he continues.
Mines and their processing requirements have, however, also evolved.
“Having recognised that the evolution of the DRC’s mining industry required an evolution and reinvention of our own business – from focusing simply on chemical stockholding and supply to becoming a chemical reagent minerals processing and application technology expert.”
Significant time, effort and money was invested into this transformation which required growing its staff complement to include more minerals processing experts, investing in laboratory infrastructure (in Cape Town, South Africa and Australia) and patented technology for copper oxide flotation (initially).
“Our unique offering has subsequently enabled us to add real value to our customers’ operations – gaining access to production they never had, efficiently and profitably.”
Positioned for significant growth
With an annual turnover north of US$150 million today, Axis House has clearly grown exponentially over the years, but the company has not yet reached a ceiling.
McLean-Anderson has ambitions to grow further moving forward.
“Our five-year plan is to become a world player in the mining speciality arena through geographic and organic expansion.
“And considering we have started making in-roads into South America and Peru more specifically, we are on our growth trajectory already.”
Further to this, Axis House has representation in Mexico which hosts attractive copper, lithium and molybdenum deposits and is also looking at Baltic states such as Russia and Kazakhstan as part of the initial push to establish a truly international presence.
The DRC naturally holds opportunity for growth as well.
The outlook for copper (wires used to reticulate power to batteries) and cobalt (a requisite for electric vehicles and lithium ion batteries) is forecast to boom rapidly in the short to medium-term future.
The MD expects around 10 – 15% of its future growth will be achieved organically from the DRC – through new projects and increasing its business with existing customers – which will result from the company’s enhanced service offering which has evolved alongside its clients’ processing requirements.
R&D: Improving cobalt and copper recoveries
“We thrive on solving problems to help our customers – it is through problems that new technologies are born.”
This company philosophy continues to see Axis House place a lot of time and investment into research and development (R&D), of which it has two pillars.
The first is focused on product development to create novel and unique chemistries which entails looking at applications of chemistry on a molecular level to find something new or alternatively something with the same molecular structure but available as a waste stream to lower the unit cost of production.
The second pillar is focused on providing more cost effective chemistry components that deliver improved recoveries and grades without additional capital expenditure.
“We have improved some of our clients’ production by as much as 25%, so we’ve proven our capabilities in this area,” McLean-Anderson highlights.
Through this business focus, Axis House has naturally progressed from being an expert in copper oxide flotation five years ago to one of the world’s leaders in base metals flotation today – “with a unique and full range of reagents covering all facets of flotation.”
Copper sulphide treatment for example is now a significant component of the company’s business – and is the result of extensive R&D and the consequent understanding of common challenges around gangue material.
“We were subsequently able to develop interesting and commercial copper sulphide reagent collectors that have by word of mouth alone spread across the globe. This has given us great tenure in the Congo as more mature ore bodies transition to sulphide materials once their oxide material depletes.”
In the cobalt sphere the company has added another technical pillar to the business in sulphuric acid leaching circuits.
Together with its US partner Martin Marietta – Magnesia Solutions, Axis House has brought a reagent to the market that more effectively precipitates cobalt.
“No other reagent can effectively deliver to the same standard. Our customers are achieving up to 15% increase in final cobalt grades.”
The company is also focused on formulating its own frother reagents – which it does through HydroFroth – a 50:50 joint venture between Axis House and an Australian partner.
“On the back of success with this initiative in Zambia we are looking to roll out this service offering to the DRC and Peru this year and believe we can dominate this market which remains reliant on mature products which have been in existence for decades.”
HydroFroth’s frothers have high flash points, meaning they pose less fire risk.
And while the company pre-determines the frother reagent in a laboratory environment, it also finalises the frother formulation on site in order to take site-specific plant conditions into consideration as these can vary substantially between sites and projects.
A team on site provides operators with an understanding of the process, how the product works and how to implement best practises through ongoing training and on site monitoring.
“Once we have shown that our technology works we must ensure we maintain performance standards which often requires small tweaks and adjustments to the frothers on an annual basis,” the MD notes.
Overcoming DRC constraints: strong in logistics
The production of cobalt hydroxide has naturally increased over the years and is a volumetric substance.
As this market sector is set to escalate even further, the freight market is anticipated to come under further pressure – and this further highlights the need to plan logistics and secure the necessary logistics contracts for product import and export – especially in landlocked countries with long border post waiting periods such as the DRC.
“Axis House is fortunately well positioned in this regard because we handle our own logistics on the back of a substantial shipping department. This gives us flexibility and control when handling high workload volumes directly and is a benefit our clients naturally gain advantage of,” McLean-Anderson concludes.