A fortunate bismuth-cobalt partnership
Last updated 10/24/2023 at 12:46pm
Rio Tinto, Fortune Minerals team up to recover critical minerals at Nico refinery in Alberta.
To bolster the North American supply of critical minerals, global mining giant Rio Tinto and Canadian mine developer Fortune Minerals Ltd. are working together to improve the recovery of bismuth and cobalt from ore and waste streams.
"We are committed to find better ways to provide the materials the world needs to grow and decarbonize," said Rio Tinto Kennecott Managing Director Nate Foster.
The global mining company has already demonstrated that commitment through its investment in a circuit to recover tellurium needed for thin-film solar panels at its Kennecott copper operation in Utah, lithium from its Boron mine in California, and scandium at its Rio Tinto Fer et Titane (iron and titanium) metallurgical complex in Quebec.
Now, Rio Tinto is working with Fortune to investigate various processes and technologies to recover the bismuth and cobalt contained in Kennecott's smelter waste streams, including an assessment of blending intermediate products produced at Kennecott with concentrates produced at Fortune's Nico cobalt-bismuth-copper-gold project in Canada's Northwest Territories.
"We are enthusiastic about this partnership with Fortune Minerals as we continue looking at our waste streams to develop new, sustainable sources of critical minerals here in North America," Foster added.
Nico refinery collaboration
Lying about 150 road-kilometers (95 miles) north of the Canadian rail system at Hay River, Northwest Territories, Nico is a near-development stage mine project that includes an intriguing mix of critical and precious metals.
According to a 2020 development plan, a mine at Nico and an associated refinery expected to be built in Alberta would produce an average of 1,800 metric tons of battery-grade cobalt sulfate, 1,700 metric tons of bismuth, 300 metric tons of copper, and 47,000 oz of gold annually over the first 14 years of mining.
Fortune's partnership with Rio Tinto aims to maximize the value of critical mineral supply chain investments and bolster the planned bismuth and cobalt production at the Alberta refinery through the co-processing of intermediate streams from the Kennecott smelter.
"Working with Rio Tinto to recover metals from their co-product streams is part of our corporate strategy to expand production of critical minerals, and we are excited to be working with one of the world's premier mining companies on the first of these opportunities," said Fortune Minerals President and CEO Robin Goad. "This collaboration could provide a solution to support greater production of the metals needed for the energy transition and growing sustainable economy."
Fortunate metals mix
The cobalt produced from Nico concentrates and Kennecott refinery waste streams would provide North American manufacturers an alternative to the Democratic Republic of Congo and China for this metal going into lithium-ion batteries used in EVs, renewable energy, and an ever-growing array of electronic and household devices.
The bismuth that would be produced through the successful implementation of a recovery technology under the Rio Tinto-Fortune partnership has unique physical and chemical properties critical to a wide range of high-tech and industrial applications.
A U.S. Department of Energy national lab recently identified powerful manganese-bismuth permanent magnets as a potentially breakthrough alternative to rare earth magnets in EV motors, wind turbines, military hardware, and other applications add additional market upside to this rare metal.
More than 10% of the world's bismuth reserves – deposits where it has been shown economic feasibility for recovering the metal – are found at Nico.
What makes Nico even more intriguing is the mine in Northwest Territories and refinery in Alberta would also produce appreciable quantities of the copper critical to the clean energy transition and gold that offers a built-in hedge against inflation alongside the bismuth and cobalt.
Fortune has secured an option for a brownfield industrial site in Alberta to build its refinery. With 42,000 square feet of serviced shops and buildings adjacent to the Canadian National Railway, this site is well-suited to accept concentrates from Nico and bismuth- and cobalt-enriched products from Kennecott for processing and then delivery of critical metals back to the North American market.