AB Minerals: bringing home the tantalum

By Wedaeli Chibelushi

A number of African countries are the source of the majority of the world’s supply of tantalum, a mineral widely used in modern technology. Your iPhone? Tantalum. PS3? Tantalum. Unfortunately, most of Africa’s tantalum is processed abroad in country’s such as China and Europe, meaning the African countries producing the minerals reap only a tiny reward. AB Minerals plans to bring tantalum’s value back to the countries that host the ore reserves. The firm has developed a new technology to create metallurgical grade tantalum powder and niobium hydroxide from industrial scale processing plants to be installed in many countries in Africa.  We speak to Frank Balestra, CEO, AB Minerals Corp. to find out more:

How did this project come to be?

My first trip to Africa was to DR Congo. I ended up taking a trip to Kinshasa and spent some time trying to put a project together. It did not go well. I was subsequently invited to look at Rwanda. I quickly fell in love with Rwanda. That is where I started to learn the coltan business. In Canada, there has been a lot of work in metallurgy with complex rare earth minerals. I had a couple of labs do some work along a different path than the existing processes of today. We had some early success and achieved complete separation of tantalum-niobium from the concentrate. We then needed to expand on this success to get to a commercial scale using parameters that would work in African countries given certain limitations. Over the last several years we’ve been developing the commercial process and now get nearly 100 percent recovery of tantalum and niobium from our concentrate. We have developed a very nice process that is a low-cost, low power solution that will work exceptionally well in any African country with enough tantalite bearing ores to operate a plant. In addition, the plant has been designed to be easily scalable to the size of the ore production available.

Sounds fascinating, but complex. Can you talk about the challenges that arose and how you overcame them?

There are issues like power limitations, brownouts, and electrical storms that happen often. For many processing plants, if the power goes off for some reason and you cannot maintain your furnace temperature, you would lose the load you are processing. Our process, being a low power solution, will work on either electricity or diesel. Inconsistent power does not stop us from operating. After looking at the opportunity, I realized “There has to be a better way to do this. This technology hasn’t changed in 60-70 years”. It is seldom that you can find an industry that the technology has not been considerably upgraded in that time period. 

The process today uses hydrofluoric acid, a very dangerous chemical. The process is very power intensive and the capital cost to build a plant is significant.  We use a completely different process, one that doesn’t use hydrofluoric acid. A process that and is more environmentally friendly as we capture everything, waste, gases, etc., so it’s a very clean system. These were extremely important aspects of how we wanted the process designed.  

How does your project divert from this?

Instead of using hydrofluoric acid, we use a compound that is inexpensive, plentiful, and easy to transport. The first step in the process was the hardest to achieve, separating the tantalum and niobium from the rest of the rock in the concentrate. Once we did that, we were then able to upgrade to a higher-level end product, giving us the highest value possible from the minerals. It’s a significant upgrade in value-addition, which significantly changes the value proposition for the miners, the local communities and tax revenues for the countries that we will be operating in. 

How does an up-and-coming project translate on a global scale?

Most of the world’s supply of Tantalum currently originates from Africa. With so many African countries that have Tantalum mineralization and no processing facilities on the continent, AB Minerals has a significant opportunity to implement plants in each of those countries.

We were on a call yesterday when the person said, “people don’t understand that Tantalum is one of the world’s most important minerals”. The world is going to the Internet of Everything, which is interacting cars to houses, everything to everything, and they’re all using capacitors. Without tantalum, these capacitors don’t work. Industry has tried different materials, and they just don’t do what tantalum does, it’s an irreplaceable metal. The value of tantalum remains relatively strong, and it’s going to keep going. The majority of easily attainable tantalum that remains on this earth is in Africa.

How will the project contribute to the surrounding community?

These plants are going to be very significant, in terms of the volume of business they will generate, as well as the number of people they are going to employ.

We bring high value jobs to each African country where we install a plant. Individuals that have chemistry education, metallurgy, or lab experience for example, are all types of people that we will be looking to employ. There are many people with good skills but there aren’t industry jobs available for them in their respective fields.

Additionally, for the government, instead of having products exported at minimum values, products will be exported for multiple times their initial value, creating a substantially larger tax benefit for the country. This increased tax revenue can then in turn be reinvested into country.

For the communities, mining revenues have declined due to a drop in commodities prices. Because of that, everyone is looking for ways to add value. For most of Africa, the problem with their resources is that few foreigners are willing to transfer the necessary technology to give host countries the ability to upgrade their resources directly in-country. Change that and you will see increased value remaining in the country.

Export your raw materials and you’re left with the lowest value. Miners are paid the lowest value for the hardest work of getting the minerals out of the ground. Foreign agents pay the miners cash for their work and consolidate the minerals for export. They add a significant mark up at their end, which doesn’t go back to the miners. Then the smelters, whether they be mainly Chinese, or a few European, create further added value on their end, reaping most of the benefit of mining that was done in Africa.

By bringing AB Minerals’ processing directly to the country of original, we believe we will see a great change in the value proposition for not only the miners, but for the country as a whole.

How will you ensure that there are no ethical violations in the mines you source from?

This is an area that we feel very strongly about. Firstly, we plan to deal with mines that are iTSCI approved. In addition, the Better Sourcing Program (BSP) has also been developed to achieve traceability through the entire supply chain. The Company’s Advisory Board Member, Bill Millman has been involved in the development of BSP program.

We will implement a system to continuously check on mine sites and ensure that our suppliers (sources) remain in compliance with acceptable standards of operation. Being the only smelter in any region will mean that there will be continuous flow of minerals coming to the facility from many different mines. It’s important to utilize the best available programs to ensure supply assurance and that appropriate international standards are continuing to be met.

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