AMA gathering abuzz with critical minerals
North of 60 Mining News - December 1, 2023
Last updated 11/30/2023 at 1:44pm
From Pentagon's $37.5M grant to Graphite One to emerging nickel deposits, critical minerals are a hot AK mining topic.
With Washington investing billions of dollars into ensuring safe and secure critical mineral supply chains, many mining companies are focusing more sharply on unlocking Alaska's potential to be a domestic source of the 50 minerals and metals critical to America's economic well-being and national security.
The growing list of critical minerals being sought across America's Last Frontier include graphite on the Seward Peninsula, antimony associated with gold deposits across the state, germanium in the Red Dog District, gallium and cobalt in the Ambler Mining District, nickel in the Wrangellia Terrane, and niobium and rare earth elements in the Tofty Tin Belt.
The one critical minerals project in Alaska that garnered the most attention during 2023 is Graphite Creek, a world-class battery materials project that has attracted interest from automakers and a $37.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.
This grant to support Graphite One Inc.'s work to get the Graphite Creek mine project ready for permitting signifies the national importance of the world-class deposit of graphite found there and demonstrates why the United States must now invest heavily in securing reliable supplies of critical minerals.
While graphite is the single largest ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries powering electric vehicles, there are currently no graphite mines in the U.S. This means that American automakers must look overseas for supplies. And China currently accounts for roughly 60% of the global mined graphite and nearly 90% of the production of battery-grade graphite anode material needed for lithium-ion batteries.
This urgency for reliable supplies of graphite and other critical minerals is being elevated by China's state-controlled restriction on graphite and graphite product exports that go into effect on Dec. 1.
The massive demand for graphite, cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, rare earths, and other critical minerals was an underlying theme of the 2023 Alaska Miners Association convention in Anchorage.
"The demand growth is really staggering, and it is being noticed," American Exploration and Mining Association Executive Director Mark Compton informed AMA attendees on Nov. 7. "Mining is talked about, favorably even, more now on both sides of the aisle than we've seen in a long time."
While much of this talk revolved around "the good, the bad, and the ugly" of domestic mining policies coming out of Washington, Alaska's potential as a critical mineral supplier was discussed, favorably even, by the mining sector more than we've seen in a long time.
Strategic antimony with gold
While antimony is not at the top of the national critical mineral discussion, secure supplies of this relatively scarce element sometimes associated with gold deposits in Alaska is on the minds of top brass in the Pentagon.
The reason for this concern lies in both the supply and demand side of the equation for this strategic metalloid, which is an element that displays properties somewhere between metals and non-metals.
On the demand side, antimony is needed for a wide range of military gear, from fire-resistant combat equipment and night vision goggles to ammunition and laser sighting.
Adding to its criticality, antimony is also a key ingredient in liquid-metal batteries that can store electricity at the grid scale, a key enabler to the transition to intermittent renewable energy sources.
Despite its strategic value to the Pentagon and critical applications in the private sector, no marketable antimony is being mined in the U.S. Instead, America depends on oft adversarial countries for more than 83% of its needs, with the rest coming from recycling.
This puts the U.S. military at a strategic disadvantage, especially given that China, Russia, and Tajikistan produce roughly 88% of the world's mined antimony.
To begin shoring up a secure domestic supply, DOD is investing more than $40 million to help establish an antinomy supply chain that begins at Perpetua Resources Corp.'s Stibnite Gold project in Idaho.
As critical as antimony is to the Pentagon, this strategic metalloid will not be the breadwinner for the Stibnite Mine. Instead, the gold also recovered will be the primary financial driver that makes recovering antimony as a byproduct viable.
"Antimony is an incredibly important critical mineral, but it would not be being explored for or looked at if it wasn't for that gold income producer that made it feasible," Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Skibinski explained during a Nov. 15 critical minerals panel discussion at the Alaska Resource Development conference in Anchorage.
Much of Alaska's critical mineral potential is tied to deposits of gold, copper, and other more common metals that would support the commercial viability of recovering the minor minerals critical to the U.S.
Two Alaska antimony projects
Much like Idaho, Alaska is home to projects enriched with both gold and antimony. This includes the Treasure Creek project about 15 miles north of Fairbanks, which hosts a historic mine that provided America with a domestic supply of this strategic metalloid during the World Wars.
The Scrafford Mine at Treasure Creek went into operation in 1915 and produced an estimated 2.4 million pounds of antimony from 2,800 metric tons of ore averaging 38.6% stibnite, which is a primary antimony mineral.
Felix Gold Corp., which originally optioned Treasure Creek for its gold potential, believes antimony could be a byproduct or even coproduct of a future mine there.
Based on Felix's inaugural drilling in 2022, it is estimated that the NW Array target at Treasure Creek could host 1.1 million to 3.6 million ounces of gold in a deposit with grades similar to what has been mined at Kinross Gold Corp.'s Fort Knox Mine about 12 miles to the east.
The NW Array target area happens to be only about 2,000 meters northwest of the Scrafford Mine, which is also on the Treasure Creek property.
Felix recognized significant quantities of the antimony mineral stibnite alongside the near-surface gold at NW Array and had the holes from its 2023 drilling analyzed for antimony. Highlights include:
• 1.5 meters averaging 26% antimony from a depth of 22.9 meters, and 16.76 meters averaging 1.91% antimony from a depth of 51.8 meters in hole 23TCRC135.
• 6.1 meters averaging 13% antimony from a depth of 30.5 meters in hole 23TCRC155.
• 6.1 meters averaging 7.69% antimony from a depth of 3.1 meters in hole 23TCRC176, including 1.5 meters averaging 28% antimony.
"While antimony is often found in lower concentrations alongside gold deposits, the extraordinary high-grade nature of this antimony discovery presents opportunities to assess the independent potential of antimony operations," said Felix Gold Executive Director Joe Webb.
Felix is not the only exploration company finding intriguing quantities of antimony alongside gold in Alaska.
Nova Minerals Ltd. is also finding intriguing quantities of antimony at its 9.9-million-oz Estelle gold project about 100 miles northwest of Anchorage.
"While Nova's primary focus continues to be on the gold, the discovery of high-grade stibnite, a primary ore source for antimony, associated with the gold system emerging at Estelle, represents a significant development for the company as antimony is listed as a critical and strategic mineral to US economic and national security interests by the U.S. Department of Interior," said Nova Minerals CEO Christopher Gerteisen.
Extensive mapping and sampling carried out at Estelle have discovered antimony at multiple targets across the 198-square-mile property – Stibium, Styx, Train, and Trumpet.
Some of the best antimony samples from these prospects include:
• 21.7% antimony and 0.9 g/t gold (Styx).
• 19% antimony and 1.2 g/t gold (Styx).
• 16.8% antimony, 0.7 g/t gold, and 588 g/t silver (Train).
• 5.3% antimony, 7 g/t gold, 559 g/t silver (Train).
• 2.5% antimony, 2.4 g/t gold, 500 g/t silver, and 1.6% copper (Train).
• 2.1% antimony, 12.7 g/t gold, and 1,600 g/t silver (Stibium).
"A closer re-examination of the multi-element data from historical samples is also showing that the antimony association with the gold systems appears to be widespread across Estelle and of high-grade at several prospects where massive stibnite veining has been observed," Gerteisen said.
NW Alaska germanium, gallium
An escalating technology trade war between China and the West is shining a spotlight on a trio of critical minerals found in Alaska.
China fired a shot across the bow of America's tech sector with a July announcement of state-controlled restrictions on the exports of gallium and germanium used in microchips for smartphones, computers, graphics processors, EVs, military hardware, and an uncountable number of other high-tech devices.
"Gallium and germanium are chess pieces in a geopolitical game of enormous proportions," Christopher Ecclestone, a mining strategist at the consulting firm Hallgarten & Company, told Washington, DC-based Foreign Policy earlier this year.
Thanks to Teck Resources Ltd.'s Red Dog zinc mine on NANA Corp. lands in Northwest Alaska, the U.S. is positioned to fend off China's germanium gambit.
While Red Dog is best known for being the second largest zinc-producing mine in the world, this operation also happens to be a globally significant source of germanium.
As operator of both Red Dog and Trail Operations – a refinery in Southern British Columbia that processes the concentrates from Red Dog and other zinc mines – Teck is the largest germanium producer in North America.
Even with the germanium coming out of Red Dog, however, the U.S. is dependent on imports for about half its supply of this mineral critical to high-tech and green energy, approximately 54% of which comes from China.
Recent work carried out for Trilogy Metals Inc. demonstrates that Alaska's potential as a domestic supplier of germanium extends beyond Red Dog.
A study carried out this summer in partnership with the Colorado School of Mines and the U.S. Geological Survey offered intriguing evidence that the Bornite copper-cobalt deposit in Alaska's Ambler Mining District may also be a significant source of germanium.
The USGS first recognized copper mineralization at Bornite in the 1980s, and Trilogy has suspected that the values of this tech metal have been underrepresented since 2011.
While Bornite has long been recognized for its germanium, the scope of this potential has never been reflected in the assays. The primary reason for this is the germanium compound found in the deposit is lost during a reaction with hydrochloric acid.
Recognizing that the germanium values were being underreported as far back as 2011, Trilogy had 50 core samples from four holes tested with preparation methods for germanium.
Highlights from this initial sampling include:
• 6.8 meters averaging 24.47% copper and 16 parts per million germanium.
• 4.5 meters averaging 7.96% copper and nine ppm germanium.
• 17.6 meters averaging 12.45% copper and 30 ppm germanium.
• 5.6 meters averaging 9.8% copper and eight ppm germanium.
While a squeeze on germanium supply could impact America's tech sector, the slowdown or stoppage of Chinese exports of gallium could be much more crippling to the U.S. economy and green energy ambitions.
A critical minerals report published by the USGS pointed to Alaska's zinc and copper projects as some of the best potential domestic sources for gallium.
In addition to the two critical minerals already produced at Red Dog – germanium and zinc – it is estimated that the ore being mined at this Northwest Alaska operation contains roughly 26 parts per million gallium. At this concentration, as low as it is, the ore fed into the Red Dog mill each year would contain about 15 metric tons of gallium, which is roughly 80% of what is currently used in the U.S. each year.
Recovering this gallium, however, could prove to be difficult.
"(O)nly a small percentage of gallium metal in bauxite (aluminum mineral) and zinc ores is recoverable using current methods because processing techniques to separate aluminum, zinc, and other byproduct metals (for example, germanium and indium) compete for gallium in source materials," according to the USGS.
The USGS also reports that the Bornite deposit hosts elevated gallium values along with the copper, cobalt, and germanium already found there.
Gallium has also been identified in the silver-rich ores at Hecla Mining Company's Greens Creek Mine in Southeast Alaska.
Over the past 35 years of mining for silver, zinc, and gold at Greens Creek, much of the gallium and six other critical minerals – antimony, arsenic, barite, bismuth, germanium, and indium – associated with Greens Creek ore have been stored at the mine.
During a Nov. 8 keynote presentation at the AMA convention, Hecla Mining President and CEO Philips Baker said the tailings at Greens Creek contain an estimated $3 billion worth of metals, including "lots of critical minerals that you don't really think of" during initial mining.
Hecla is currently studying the viability of transporting these tailings that are dry-stacked on Admiralty Island, where Greens Creek is located, to an off-site location for reprocessing.
In addition to offering a domestic source of critical minerals, this idea would lessen Green Creek's environmental footprint on Admiralty Island.
Alaska energy metals at the fore
Aside from byproducts of current and future Alaska mines, there are areas of Alaska where critical minerals come to the fore.
One such area is the Wrangellia Terrane, a nickel-enriched crustal fragment that crashed into Alaska and Canada's west millions of years ago.
The most advanced nickel project in Alaska's section of the Wrangellia Terrane is the Nikolai project being explored by Alaska Energy Metals Corp.
An inaugural resource calculated for Alaska Energy Metals in November outlines 319.6 million metric tons of inferred resource at Nikolai averaging 0.22% (1.55 billion lb) nickel, 0.02% (115 million lb) cobalt, 0.05% (372 million lb) copper, and 0.13 g/t (1.34 million oz) palladium-platinum-gold.
The nickel and cobalt found in this deposit are key ingredients for EV batteries, making Nikolai another emerging Alaska project with the potential to be a supplier of metals critical to America's energy transition.
This resource is contained within two relatively small pits about 2,000 meters apart along the much longer 10-mile (16 kilometers) Eureka Zone trend at Nikolai. Connecting and extending these resource pits will significantly expand the resources outlined so far.
"The rapid growth in resources speaks to the consistency and predictability of the deposit, which remains open in all directions," said Alaska Energy Metals President and CEO Greg Beischer. "Eureka is quickly evolving into one of the larger nickel resources on the continent."
While Alaska Energy Metals has a head start when it comes to establishing a globally significant deposit of nickel in Alaska's section of the Wrangellia Terrane, they are not the only ones exploring this area.
KoBold Metals – a high-tech mineral exploration company backed by Microsoft's Bill Gates, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, and Alibaba's Jack Ma – is exploring the large Skolai project immediately north and west of Nikolai.
On Nov. 28, KoBold closed a deal to acquire data from exploration historically carried out at Skolai.
When combined with the sampling, mapping, and geophysical program carried out by KoBold this summer, the purchased data will provide additional inputs for its AI and machine learning tools to discover new ethical sources of nickel, cobalt, copper, and potentially other critical energy transition metals at Skolai.
"We appreciate completing this data purchase with Alaska Energy Metals Corporation to further work on our Skolai nickel project," said KoBold Metals Chief Strategy Officer Daniel Enderton.
Emerging Tofty critical metals belt
The Tofty Tin Belt, about 90 miles northwest of Fairbanks, is another area of Alaska with projects being explored primarily for their critical mineral potential.
The tin found in this belt that extends for nearly 20 miles across the Manley Hot Springs District is associated with a host of other critical minerals, including niobium and rare earth elements.
Abundant tin was found in the streams along the Tofty Tin Belt more than 100 years ago. This is because the cassiterite, a relatively heavy mineral, would plug up sluice boxes and render them ineffective in recovering gold.
"Gold mining in the district developed rapidly, and as the productive area in the vicinity of Tofty increased it was found that tin and gold were generally associated and that the richer concentrations of the two minerals were generally coincident," Henry Eakin wrote in a 1914 USGS report, Tin Mining in Alaska.
Carbonatites – carbonate-rich igneous rocks that often carry rare earths and other critical minerals – have been identified at Tofty, and geophysical surveys flown over the area have identified a magnetic anomaly coincident with the carbonatites that extends for 19 miles.
The Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys (DGGS) investigated carbonatite in this area in 1984 and again during the 1990s.
The 1984 program included shallow drilling that cut magnetite-rich, niobium-bearing carbonatite with rare earths and yttrium.
In a 1998 report, DGGS said the carbonatite body running across the Tofty Belt "is much more extensive than previously thought; it thus is likely that the niobium resources of the area were underestimated by several orders of magnitude."
Wiseman Metals, a private exploration company backed by the same Australian group that is behind Felix Gold, made a deal with Doyon for a 23,000-acre land package covering a section of the carbonatite trend and staked state mining claims covering another 39,000 acres along trend and over a strong magnetic anomaly to the south.
"We think there is a parallel series of carbonatites that run through here as well," Wiseman Metals Chairman Joseph Webb said of the southern group of claims making up the larger Kaazene property.
During 2023, Wiseman Metals began early staged exploration aimed at gaining a better understanding of the critical mineral potential at Kaazene.
With other companies and individuals staking niobium- and rare earths-rich claims along the Tofty Tin Belt, this region of Interior Alaska is quietly emerging as yet another critical minerals district in America's Last Frontier.