A new report submitted by Kemetco Research Inc. on behalf of American Manganese Inc. and partially funded by the National Research Council of Canada, should at some point have major reverberations throughout the manganese mining sector and especially in the United States - most notably for those mining companies with lower grade manganese deposits once deemed marginally economic.
For the sake of including the specific details of the process - which are somewhat technical - I quote below from some of the information in the company's announcement earlier this month of the report prepared by Kemetco of Richmond, British Columbia, on "The Recovery of Manganese From Low Grade Resources: Bench Scale Test Program Completed:"
"The report describes and summarizes the extensive bench-scale metallurgical tests of the unit operations - operations which when linked together form the basis of a complete innovative conceptual flow sheet, complete with heat, mass and energy balances - designed to process lower-grade manganese ("Mn") mineralization into high purity manganese metal."
American Manganese executives went on to say that In May 2009 they had commissioned Kemetco to develop a robust, energy efficient hydrometallurgical process which would yield high purity manganese metal and/or manganese dioxide while minimizing potential environmental impacts.
The work was described as integrating and building upon extensive research carried out in large part by the U.S. Bureau of Mines intermittently from the 1940s through the 1980s as well as proprietary third party research conducted by other mining companies.
"The report confirms that American Manganese's proprietary process can extract manganese at greater than 90% efficiency while minimizing water use and potential environmental impacts," the announcement said.
"The conceptual process flow sheet developed during this test program is based on a unique application of commercially available process equipment so that the process is deemed to be robust and energy efficient. In addition to the production of electrolytic manganese metal, a saleable anhydrous sulfate by-product will also be produced.
"Treatment of typical manganese samples containing between 4% and 7% Mn by weight (primarily in the form of pyrolusite, psilomelane and wad), is carried out in a hydrometallurgical process whereby four-valent Mn is reduced and leached by sulfur dioxide (SO2) dissolved in water.
"The hydrometallurgical processing of friable lower-grade material avoids intensive crushing and grinding, as well as the undesirable high temperature reduction roasting that is conventionally used in processing hard high-grade material. Roasting at temperatures typically between 800 degrees C and 1,000 degrees C is energy intensive and would not be economical for lower-grade material.
"Leaching studies performed on typical manganese samples of large particle size (greater than 9.5 mm) with dilute SO2 in stirred tanks indicates that the material is readily leachable. The material is friable and large particles break down easily during stirred tank leaching. SO2 leachant is produced on-site by burning elemental sulfur with 20% excess air.
"At a feed processing rate of 3,500 tonnes/day, heat exchanging the exhaust gases from the sulfur burner will produce an estimated 20 tonnes per hour of steam at 400 degrees C and 45 bar pressure. In a condensing turbine, this steam can produce 5 MW of continuous electrical power.
"The pregnant leach solution (PLS) is purified in 2 stages prior to separating the manganese by precipitation. Dissolving the precipitate with recycled electrolyte produces a Mn-containing solution that is conducive to producing high-grade Mn metal by electro-winning.
"Solid tailings with minimum water content are produced by filtration of the final counter current decantation underflow material, minimizing water requirements for the overall process. The solid tailings produced from test work were shown to be benign by the toxicity characteristic leaching procedure, and can be returned to mined-out areas of an open pit facilitating immediate progressive reclamation of disturbed areas.
"Based on the successful test work, conceptual flow sheets have been developed which include applications of novel, proprietary, innovative technology to minimize process operating costs through low water use, low overall energy use and economic destruction of unwanted by-products."
American Manganese executives saidthey had asked Kemetco to file an application for patent protection of the process.
Now the reason I mentioned earlier that this announcement was of great importance for manganese mining in the United States is the fact that the U.S. has several rather large-scale and long-known deposits of lower grade manganese in various parts of the country but no domestic manganese mine currently underway.
The process outlined may not be applicable to all types of low grade manganese ore deposits due to the manganese ore mineral composition and other extenuating factors but:
- Manganese has been the country's top strategic metal and is still near the top of the federal government's list of strategic metals today, especially for the munitions and defense Industry;
- Manganese is the world's fourth largest traded metal commodity;
- World manganese consumption stands at 30 billion pounds per year;
- Manganese demand is currently growing at 8% or 1.5 billion pounds per year;
- Electrolytic manganese metal (EMM) demand has been growing at 26% per year for the past five years;
- The U.S. government has essentially sold off all of its strategic stockpiles of manganese over the last few years;
- Manganese is a key alloy in not only carbon steel but is also used in stainless steel, aluminum, chemicals and various types of existing battery technologies as well as hybrid batteries now being developed;
- And many stainless steel applications use 6% manganese and series 200 stainless steel requires 12% manganese, replacing nickel.
As I have outlined in previous commentaries on manganese, China currently controls 97% of the world's supply of electrolytic manganese and steel cannot be made without manganese being added as an alloying agent to prevent brittleness in the steel. In effect, 10 to 20 pounds of manganese is required per tonne ofsteel and no substitution is possible.
When one considerers the state of the U.S. steel industry today and the industrial competitiveness of other nations involved in steel production that are not truly still third world in status still have much cheaper labor, I the question is what can be done to help level the playing field?
"What most Americans do not know is that their own steel industry is bigger than those of all the other nations on earth put together. No other nation could have matched that record. It is a record that stands as a glorious tribute to the men who make steel and the men who built steel in America."
- Ben Fairless, chairman of U.S. Steel Corp., January 1951
How things have changed since those glory days!
Steel is one of the basic building blocks of the modern world and in the words of Brian Gilbertson, former CEO of BHP Billiton and currently CEO of Pallinghurst Resources: "You cannot make steel without Manganese and if you can't make steel the world stops."
Courtesy of www.steel-grips.com
In 2009 the five largest steel producing countries were:
- China, produding 567.8 million metric tonnes
- Japan, 87.5 mmt
- Russia, 59.9 mmt
- United States, 58.1 mmt
- India, 56.5 mmt
When you consider that China just keeps tightening the economic noose on natural resources worldwide, then factor in the 20% export tax they have on electrolytic manganese exported to world steel producers and a multitude of other end users and a 14% import tax the U.S. government adds in the mix, one can see part of the uneven playing field U.S. steel producers have to work with. Also noteworthy is the fact that much of the Chinese manganese is of poor quality to begin with.
The western world and primarily the United States needs to wake up and act in order to keep their technology, industry and military on an even playing field with China. Research shows that the U.S. is 100% dependent on imports of 18 different key metals and 90% import dependent on four others.
With all the fanfare now being dedicated to rare earths and calls for government grants and loan guarantees to create rare earth mines in the U.S., I can only wonder why nothing is said about domestic manganese mines and the state of the U.S. steel industry.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are you listening? President Obama, you need a lot more than just rare earthss for your electric cars and wind-farms! As the billionaire T. Boone Pickens has said, "We need to take control of our own natural resources." I take that to mean not just oil and gas, but all natural resources.
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) recently stated, "Without a secure, domestic supply of rare earth metals, our country is forced to rely on China for these materials, an unacceptable situation that jeopardizes our economy, our energy supply and our National Security interests." That statement would and should also apply to manganese and not just rare earths.
The continental United States has more than enough good quality, although lower grade, manganese deposits to supply domestic needs as well as exports for the world but they sit idle in the ground. Jobs are needed in the U.S. economy but none are being created by mining.
It appears that now there is, at long last, an efficient and low cost manganese recovery process. It was pioneered by the Bureau of Mines in the 1940s and used for production at the Three Kids Mine in Henderson, Nev., in late 1940s and 1950s for U.S. steel companies.
The process has been refined, modernized with new equipment and technology and tested extensively over the last year by Kemetco on behalf of a junior mining company with a clear vision and a large low grade manganese deposit in mine-friendly Arizona. This may just prove to be the defining factor in the U.S. becoming independent of one very important strategic metal that China has a world stranglehold on at present.
When I recently contacted the COO of American Manganese and asked if this process could be termed as a somewhat "green" or "environmentally friendly" mine operation as it appeared to be at first glance, the response was a firm "yes". He stated that with the ore mineralogy and this Kemetco process they had no grinding costs since the ore was "friable" and they used very little water and no toxic chemicals in the leach process.
Cogeneration of electrical power from steam generated in the process would off-set electrical use and costs, the process requires no roasting of ore and the toxically benign solid waste tailings are able to be replaced back into mined out areas with no effect on the environment. Not often you hear the words environmentally friendly in mining discussions.
There you have it in a nutshell: one more small potential step for American independence from Chinese Imports of strategic metals, but a step as yet untaken by the U.S. government and mining experts who claim to keep us informed.
Let's hope when all are worn out from the rare earth chatter and fanfare they might take a reality check on the vast importance of manganese to the economy, national security and the fact that you can't mine everything in somebody else's backyard and be competitive or secure, much less create new jobs.
North America has some of the best mining people and technology in the world and it's time to get back to utilizing them.
As always, thanks for reading.
Ken Reser is a research consultant retained by a number of junior mining companies, including American Manganese Inc. He may own shares in these companies or hold options in said companies. He can be reached by phone at 403-844-2914 and by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: This commentary is based on personal opinions and as such is not a recommendation to own or purchase shares in any company mentioned. Do your own due diligence or speak with a qualified investment advisor.