The American explorer who discovered the world’s biggest copper deposit in Chile has staked a claim in Paraguay to what he says may be the largest titanium find.
David Lowell, 82, the president of closely held CIC Resources Inc., controls mineral rights to at least 185,000 hectares (457,000 acres), according to Paraguay’s sub-ministry of mining and energy. That is an area the size of London. The possible resources are 21 billion metric tons, Lowell said.
“Our deposit could control the world titanium market, a big enough piece of production that whoever operates it would dictate what the price is going to be,” Lowell said in an interview. “And the price, presumably, would be reduced by having higher-grade ore and large tonnage.”
The geologist is in Hong Kong this week presenting his discovery to investors at a conference on the global titanium market sponsored by TZ Minerals International, a Western Australia consulting firm that specializes in the mineral. The project could produce between 5 million and 10 million tons of titanium ore per year with a potential operating life of 100 years, he said today outside the conference.
Indicated and inferred resources are 5.3 billion tons at an ore grade of 7.8 percent, Lowell said. Ore concentrate is quoted at $90 to $110 a metric ton depending on the grade, according to Reg Adams, a titanium dioxide researcher at Artikol N.L. in London.
Chinese companies are among potential buyers Lowell said he is talking with. The nation’s manufacturing and construction industries are driving demand for ore that produces the white pigment found in paint, paper, plastic and even toothpaste as well as light-weight aerospace materials. Boeing Co.’s new 787 Dreamliner, which is slated to enter service this year, and the construction of industrial plants such as water-desalination facilities, also boost demand for the metal.
The mineral “has a high strength-to-weight ratio,” Lowell said. “If you could reduce the price sufficiently, you could build all commercial airliner bodies out of it and save fuel costs on long flights. The same goes for automobiles.” His company, CIC Resources, is based in Vancouver.
While the material is abundant in the earth’s crust, the 2008 financial crisis delayed new ore production, says Gary McMahill, a senior consultant at DuPont Titanium Technologies, the world’s largest manufacturer of titanium dioxide pigment. It is a unit of DuPont Co. in Wilmington, Delaware.
“Now what we’re seeing is a tightening of supply,” McMahill said in an interview.
Economies of Scale
Lowell’s claim is in the Alto Parana district in eastern Paraguay near the border with Brazil. The ore he says he has found is known as ilmenite, the type predominately used in China. Some of the world’s largest known deposits of ilmenite are in Mozambique, Madagascar and South Africa, according to Ben Coetzee, a TZMI consultant based in Durban, South Africa. Continental Africa accounts for half the world’s supply of the material, he said.
“If you find an ilmenite deposit that is rich enough and large enough, that would be interesting to us,” Victor Hugo, general manager for product and technical development at Australia’s Iluka Resources Ltd., said at the conference. Iluka is a Perth-based titanium miner and processor.
Mining ilmenite needs economies of scale because it’s a low-cost input in a range of products, said Trevor Arran, executive general manager for mineral sands and base metals at Exxaro Resources Ltd., a South African producer of titanium, zinc and coal.
The project would require a $500 million investment to get 5 million metric tons a year of ore, Lowell said.
Two of the world’s largest mining companies, Melbourne, Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd. and London-based Rio Tinto Group, jointly operate the Richards Bay Minerals titanium dioxide mines in South Africa, among the world’s biggest. Rio Tinto also owns a titanium dioxide operation in Quebec.
Producers include Huntsman Corp., based in Salt Lake City, Kronos Worldwide Inc. in Dallas and National Titanium Dioxide Co., part of Saudi Arabia-based Cristal Global.
Asia-Pacific demand for pigment was expected to grow 30 percent to 2.16 million metric tons between 2008 and 2013, according to a TZMI estimate published earlier this year by Cristal Global.
In March 1981, Lowell unearthed the Escondida copper deposit, the world’s largest, in Chile’s Atacama Desert. It produced $6 billion of copper last year, according to majority owner BHP. Two Chinese companies paid a combined $1.5 billion for two copper discoveries he made earlier this decade in Peru and Ecuador.
In September, the lower house of Paraguay’s congress passed a law to strengthen mineral claims in a country that has no history of large-scale mining. Juan Antonio Denis, head of the mining and energy committee in the Chamber of Deputies, said in an interview that Lowell requested the legislation.
Lowell “told us we had to adjust our legislation to regional standards, and that’s what we set out to do,” Denis said. “We want David Lowell to come work in Paraguay.”
The legislation is now before the senate.
“There will be a time lag inevitably to get the mine constructed, at least three to five years,” said Adams at Artikol. “In a place like Paraguay, they may be into making infrastructure improvements as well.” He described Lowell’s discovery as “huge.”