The Barrytown Ilmenite Project: A New Process for the Manufacture of Titanium Dioxide
The Barrytown Ilmenite Project is located on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It is an immature (young and with little oxidation) beach sand deposit that also hosts a little rutile and gold, along with the ilmenite. It covers most of the alluvial plain in the Google map below.
Ilmenite (FeTiO3) is an iron titanium mineral that can be processed to produce titanium dioxide (TiO2). Titanium dioxide also occurs naturally as the mineral rutile. Titanium dioxide is a very bright white colour and is used in paints, plastics and paper. A small proportion is used in the production of titanium metal.
The latest Barrytown Ilmenite resource (Non-JORC) I have seen is 50 million tonnes at a high ilmenite grade of 13.8%. There is good potential for a substantial increase in the resource and drilling is ongoing as I write. The intention is to deliver a JORC resource towards the end of the year.
When compared with a typical Western Australian ilmenite, Barrytown ilmenite is lower in titanium dioxide (~47% compared with ~55%), has completely different iron oxide ratios (high FeO/Fe2O3), and is high in the contaminants alumina, silica, lime and phosphorus.
However, Barrytown Ilmenite has a unique and possibly very valuable characteristic. The ilmenite is referred to as being “reactive”. Being reactive (specifically, chemically reactive) means that the ilmenite is amenable to low cost, fast processing. This is not a feature of other ilmenite.
Test work undertaken by New Zealand’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (“DSIR”) in the 1970’s showed that titanium dioxide can be produced by leaching the reactive ilmenite with hydrochloric acid.
Single and two stage leaches were tested. Although the single stage worked, it produced titanium dioxide with unacceptably high silica. Two stage leaching at a lower temperature produced very high grade titanium dioxide. There was one major issue, the product was a very fine powder that was not amenable to further processing at the time. In my opinion, if this remains an issue today, it should be readily resolved.
The big benefits of the hydrochloric acid leach route are low cost and very little pollution, particularly in comparison with alternatives such as sulphuric acid leach. Hydrochloric acid leaching is not known to work with other ilmenite. Finally, it should be noted that processes other than hydrochloric acid leach could be commercially viable for processing Barrytown ilmenite.
A majority interest in the project is being acquired by Pacific Mineral Resources Limited (an unlisted New Zealand company) from Alloy Resources Limited (a listed Australian company). Pacific intends to complete a JORC resource and a Preliminary Feasibility Study over the next few months. In conversation with Pacific shareholders, the consensus is that the company plans to list within the next year or so.
The project has had a variety of owners, mostly exploring for gold. However, in the 1980’s Fletcher Challenge Limited (a large, listed NZ “conglomerate”) saw the opportunity inherent in reactive ilmenite. It developed various plans to produce pigment, titanium metal, etc. and received positive feedback from the titanium market. However overreach in acquisitions around the world saw the company in financial difficulty and needing to dispose of all non-core assets, including Barrytown.
This will be a very interesting investment opportunity once it is publically available. It is not without risk, but has tremendous upside if the hydrochloric acid leach process can be commercialised.