Until recently, it was assumed that South Africa’s already generous platinum resources were confined to the Bushveld Igneous Complex, but it now appears that reserves lies beyond these confines, thanks to the work of a Canadian explorer.
Platinum Group Metals (PTM) is a Vancouver-based company developing a mine in the traditional Bushveld area, but it is also looking further north in the Waterberg, better known for large-scale coal deposits. PTM first announced indications of platinum in 2011, but more recently firmed this up with the declaration of a new intercept 3.4 km northward, beyond the previous resource limit.
“When we discovered it, the Waterberg wasn’t even on the map for platinum exploration,” said PTM Chief Executive Michael Jones. “We followed the line from the Bushveld, and figured it was worth a look. We now think we have found the world’s second largest platinum deposit.”
As large as it is, it may still grow bigger. To date, the deposit is mapped out to 12 km in length, but Jones said the end has not yet been discovered. It is, he noted, an industry-changing discovery.
Not only is the deposit in an unexpected place, it’s also an unusual configuration. Conventional platinum deposits are 1- to 1.4-m thick, but Waterberg goes up to 60 m thick, which makes mechanized operations feasable.
Waterberg has a resource of 280 million metric tons (mt) at about 3 grams per ton—a total of 29 million oz. The prefeasibility study on the deposit will be completed by the middle of this year after which the definitive engineering phase will begin. Application for mining rights should be issued by 2018 at the latest.
“It’s shallow, in contrast to other operations, so it is suited to long-hole stoping,” Jones said. The company has cut the deposit off at a depth of 1,250 m. It likely goes much deeper, but PTM is not at this stage considering deep level mining—a more expensive and risky option. The topline of the deposit pushes quite close to the surface, at some points as little as 130 m deep.
It’s perhaps surprising that the deposit was discovered by a Canadian junior rather than one of the more established outfits like Anglo Platinum or Lonmin. Jones, however, contended that an outsider was perhaps just what was needed.
“In South Africa, it’s a smorgasbord of minerals and anywhere you dig a hole you find something. But in Canada, its not laid out like a giant buffet. We have the second biggest land mass on the planet with deposits scattered all over the country. You have to go out and search for minerals. It’s what we do well,” Jones said.
Eventually, PTM plans to build a 700,000-oz/y mine, at a cost of $850 million.
Meanwhile it is putting the finishing touches on its Western Bushveld joint venture, which should be in production in the fourth quarter of 2015. Minerals will be extracted from the Merensky and UG2 Reefs over a 20-year-plus mine life. This is one of the last large, near-surface sections of the Merensky Reef above 1,000 m deep, the company said, which allows lower capital and operating costs along with better working conditions compared to the older, deeper platinum mines operating nearby. It has a planned output of 270,000 oz a year.
PTM isn’t the only Canadian outfit building a platinum mine in the Bushveld. Toronto-based Ivanhoe recently completed the pre-feasibility study for its Platreef project, planned as an initial 433,000-oz/y mine.
These projects come at a time when South Africa’s platinum sector is under severe pressure from escalating costs and sporadic labor unrest. However, Jones said PTM remains confident that they are in the right place. “This is where the rocks are,” he added. “If you want the minerals, you have to be here.”