Focus: Heavy mineral sands (HMS)

The time is now

Jan. 29, 2021

Mozambique is home to major mineral sands deposits, most of which remain unexploited. With demand for titanium, rare earth elements, and zirconium on the rise, heavy mineral sands projects in the country are now attracting significant attention from international mining companies, even in times of crisis.

In today's globalized economy, heavy mineral sands (HMS) carry the same kind of importance as non-metallic and metallic raw materials. HMS are traded globally as bulk and bagged minerals and have gained massive traction of late, given their extensive use in a wide range of industries, such as paint and chemicals, aerospace, welding rods, foundry, and thorium nuclear reactors.

HMS are known as heavy minerals because they have a density greater than 2.9g/cbcm. For comparison, they have a higher density compared to quartz, which is the most common rock-forming mineral with a density of 2.65 g/cbcm. Simply put, HMS are an accumulation of valuable minerals, normally called placer deposits, formed by gravity separation during sedimentary processes. They are an important source of titanium, rare earth elements, thorium, zirconium, and tungsten and industrial minerals such as diamond, sapphire, and garnet, as well as gemstones. Notably, 75% of the world's titanium is produced from HMS. Make no mistake, HMS are rare and have more economic applications than one can imagine. Take titanium for example, which is used in the defense, medical, pigment, and aerospace industries because of its strength. On the other hand, zirconium is used in TV screens due to its ability to absorb X-rays. But that is not it; it is also used in ceramics, adhesives, catalysts, aqueous polymers, gelatin hardening, antiperspirants, and dyes. Moreover, its high density and high melting point make it suitable to be used in modern superconductors, fuel cells, transducers, and oxygen sensors. Modern HMS exploration in Mozambique began in the 1980s, with early discoveries made in the Nampula and Gaza provinces by Rio Tinto, Kenmare Resources, and BHP. At present, heavy mineral mining is one of the main exploration activities being undertaken in the country. In fact, Mozambique is known to host the largest HMS titanium feedstock deposit in the world as well as some of the largest world-class mineral sands mines.

Two of the largest investment projects focused on the mining and processing of heavy sands deposits are the Moma Heavy Sands (Kenmare Resources) and Corridor Sands (BHP Billiton). These two projects alone are projected to attract more than USD1 billion in investment. In recent times, there has been a rise in the number of commercial heavy sands projects in Mozambique, with companies like Pathfinder Minerals, Savannah Resources, Africa Great Wall Mining Development Group, MRG Metals, and Dingsheng Minerals investing in the country. But it is not just the mineral sands industry. Overall, the mining sector has experienced a boom in recent years, thanks to new mining regulations that were introduced in 2014 and 2015 as well as the quality of resources. Due to the mere size of Mozambique's HMS deposits, Australia-based MRG Metals Limited decided in late 2019 to abandon its Australian projects to focus on its highly prospective HMS projects in Mozambique. And so far, MRG Metals' bet is paying off. In June 2020, the company reported high-grade HMS results from drilling completed at the Corridor South and Corridor Central tenements in Mozambique. Talking to TBY, MRG Metals Limited's Chairman Andrew Van Der Zwan highlighted that Corridor South has the potential to hold some of the world's major ilmenite deposits, adding that the company has so far “identified 13 targets in Corridor Central and Corridor South through airborne surveys."

As for what the future holds, MRG, a junior exploration company, plans “to develop high-grade pockets to augment" what it has discovered at Koko Massava and then “build up a tier-one, world-class asset" over the next few years in cooperation with a bigger private-sector or public-sector player. Time and again, Mozambique has held its ground in the face of adversity and challenges. Rest assured, once the COVID-19 dust settles, the country will bounce back. And given the rise in the demand for titanium and zircon and the fact that exploration activities are continuing even in times of crisis, the mineral sands industry will be one to look out for.