Graphite One resumes exploratory drilling this summer
By Diana Haecker
After an involuntary pause last year due to the COVID pandemic, Graphite One this summer continues with an exploration drilling and environmental baseline study program at Graphite Creek, on the northern slope of the Kigluaik mountains.
According to Graphite One Chief Operating Officer Stan Foo, this year’s field season is to gather more data that will flow into the Preliminary Feasibility Study, to be released by the end of the year.
“We’re resuming our studies to advance our understanding of the deposit, how we would mine it and how we would process the graphite for export to a manufacturing facility in the Pacific Northwest,” said Foo. “There will be another year or two of drilling required and quite a bit of engineering studies, quite a bit of environmental studies.” Foo estimates that the project is two to three years away from the permitting process to begin. Permitting would take another year or 18 months. “We’re still, I’d say, four to five years away from the mine becoming reality,” Foo said.
Graphite One aims to become an American producer of high grade coated spherical graphite to be used for lithium-ion electric car batteries and other energy storage systems. Currently, all graphite is imported from China.
While plans have not firmed up yet, Foo said that they envision a mill and flotation process facility at the mine site that would produce a graphite concentrate. “The rock containing the graphite would be crushed and ground to a fine size, and then a ‘floatation’ process would separate the graphite from other rock material, producing a 95 percent graphite concentrate,” Foo said. The flotation process, he said, is a standard process used in the mining industry to separate minerals from other rock types. This process uses chemicals called “reagents” to create a foam to which the graphite particles adhere and float to the surface, where they can be skimmed off and dried. The final composition for these reagents has not yet been determined, but typically these are some of the most benign reagents used in the mining industry, Foo said. The concentrate would be loaded at the mine into standard sea containers in one ton sealed bags. The containers would be trucked to the Port of Nome and loaded on to barges for transport to a secondary treatment plant. Foo said, on average ten trucks would make the round trip from the mine to the Port of Nome. The secondary treatment plant would be located in the Pacific Northwest and its location is currently under study. There, the graphite concentrate would be converted to coated spherical graphite used in anodes for the lithium-ion electric vehicle battery market and energy storage systems as well as other value-added products, Foo said.
Asked about the access road, Foo said, it is still under study where it would be built. “We’re continuing to study that. At this point, we see a lot of advantages to using the Kougarok Road and constructing an access road from the staging area [at mile 28] going north to the project site, through Mosquito Pass.” He added that it will be up to the permitting agencies to determine what the environmentally preferred alternative may be for the access road.
During the 2021 drilling program, they plan to start a helicopter supported drilling program in July with two drills active through the summer. They are setting up a camp near the drilling activity. “We will have a staging area near mile 28 on the Kougarok Road for supplying the camp,” Foo said. The camp will house up to 24 people for the drilling activity and there will be 10 to 12 people involved in geology, engineering and environmental studies based in Nome. “This will be one of Graphite One’s busiest years working in the area and we continue to be encouraged by interest people have in the project and the support provided by local businesses,” Foo said. He added that the company plans to address local and regional concerns by sharing information on specific engineering and environmental plans as they become available.
Ed Fogel, formerly with the Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources, is Graphite One’s permitting manager. He said an interview with the Nome Nugget that the next years are dedicated to better understand the deposit and figuring out what the mine and the engineering will look like. Once permitting starts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make the determination whether an Environmental Assessment suffices to study its impacts on the surroundings, or if more comprehensive Environmental Impact Study needs to be done.
When asked about the impacts of a floatation mill, Fogel said, “In my past career at DNR and regulating mines, almost every big mine in Alaska has a flotation process. And as regulators, we never, ever once saw any issues with the flotation process.” He said the reagents are not discharged and are not leaving the contained system. “I don’t think there’s ever been an incident of any type with the flotation process or any of the mines in Alaska.”
However, he said, tailings facilities pose more problems. “That’s probably a place that the regulators spend more time looking at,” he said. Tailings facilities contain the left over material after it has been put through the floatation process and are stored long-term. He said Graphite One is still working on understanding the chemistry of the rock and what the tailings facility would look like.
Stan Foo added that they’re currently planning to store the tailings in what is known as a dry stack tailings facility. “The tailings are collected and as much moisture as possible is squeezed out of them, is pressed out of them and a filter cake is produced. It is then stored in a facility that protects the environment from any potential contamination,” Foo said.
Foo said that they plan to reach out to nearby communities to keep them informed and updated on Graphite One’s activities. “We will also be regrouping with our Subsistence Advisory Council to continue incorporating the best ways to protect the important subsistence resources of the area.”