Vanadium drives uranium project developments

30 October 2018

As vanadium prices increase, uranium miners in the USA and elsewhere are looking to capitalise on the vanadium that is co-present with uranium in certain deposits to add value to their operations.

Energy Fuels Inc has started a limited conventional vanadium mining programme at its La Sal complex of uranium and vanadium mines in Utah and plans to resume vanadium production at the White Mesa mill in mid-November. Western Uranium & Vanadium Corp has announced plans to re-open the Sunday mine complex in Colorado with the aim of upgrading the project's vanadium resource. Meanwhile, Australian company Aura Energy has included vanadium recovery in its ongoing definitive feasibility study (DFS) for the Tiris uranium project in Mauritania, in north-western Africa.

Vanadium - used in high-strength steel and also in some battery applications - is found alongside uranium in carnotite ores, and has historically been produced as a by-product in some operations. Increasing demand, coupled with production cuts, have seen vanadium prices increase by more than 150% over the past year, offering some uranium producers a possible route to improve economics at a time of low uranium prices. At previously producing operations, such as Energy Fuels' La Sal and Western's Sunday, vanadium resources may have been underestimated because historic mining has been targeted on uranium production, meaning that high-grade vanadium deposits may have been missed.

White Mesa is the USA's only operating conventional uranium mill, with a licensed capacity of over 8 million pounds U3O8 (3077 tU) per year, and is also is the only mill in the country capable of recovering vanadium from conventionally mined ores. It has a separate circuit to produce high-purity vanadium from certain ores, as well as a separate alternate feed circuit to produce uranium from other uranium-bearing materials - that is, materials not derived from conventional ore - with grades of up to 75% U3O8. It last produced vanadium in 2013.

In its second quarter results, announced in August, Energy Fuels said it expected to recover 320,000-360,000 pounds U3O8 at the mill during the year for its own account, of which 145,000 pounds were expected to be from alternate feed materials and the remainder from 'pond return' - dissolved uranium in the mill's tailings management system not recovered from previous processing activities.

Energy Fuels plans to resume vanadium recovery operations at White Mesa next month, processing dissolved vanadium from the tailings and evaporation ponds at the mill, which it estimates to contain about 4 million pounds of recoverable V2O5. The test-mining programme at La Sal, which is now under way, has already identified areas of high-grade vanadium mineralisation that were not previously mined due to the relatively lower uranium grades in the material, the company said.

According to Energy Fuels CEO Mark Chalmers the company is looking to build a longer-term vanadium production profile at its uranium/vanadium mines.

"As we suspected, there may be large zones of high-grade vanadium mineralisation in the La Sal Complex that were never mined in the past, because they contain relatively lower-grade uranium mineralisation. If we continue to see similar results as the programme advances, it is our hope that we can mine the La Sal Complex in a manner that targets vanadium during periods of elevated vanadium prices, even during periods of lower uranium prices. The ability to target higher-grade vanadium zones, separately and independently from higher-grade uranium zones in these mines may be, we believe, a true paradigm shift in the way these mines can be mined going forward," he said.

Sunday re-opening

Colorado-based Western - which earlier this month incorporated vanadium into its original company name of Western Uranium Corp - said on 25 October that it plans to re-open the Sunday mine complex with the aim of upgrading the vanadium resource and "monetising" the project's "already significant vanadium resource holdings". The complex consists of five individual mines, with historic resources of over 2.9 million pounds U3O8. According to a 2015 NI 43-101 technical report on the complex, it was last mined from 2006 to 2009.

"From the 1980s to the present, mining and drilling occurred only sporadically, typically whe uranium or vanadium prices were high," the report notes.

Tiris DFS back on course

Aura Energy today announced that its DFS for the Tiris uranium project in Mauritania is now in full progress again after a "period of constrained activity" due to weak uranium prices.

Sampling work at Tiris (Image: Aura Energy)

The company describes Tiris as a near-term development project with production expected in 2020. It has 17 million pounds U3O8 of measured and indicated resources with a capital cost of USD45 million and operating cost of USD19.40 per pound, according to a 2014 scoping study.

Technical investigations during the DFS have indicated the potential for the recovery of vanadium from the project's process, and the company has conducted preliminary evaluations of the feasibility of vanadium recovery from solution, Aura said. "The Tiris project value, which is driven by low operating and development capital costs, would benefit further with vanadium recovery which is considered technically achievable," the company said today.

Aura Executive Chairman Peter Reeve said the progression of the DFS following an extended hiatus during the period of lower uranium prices was pleasing. "The current rise in the uranium price is encouraging and the Tiris Uranium Project is expected to be in production in 2020 (subject to financing and permitting) moving Aura to producer status," he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News