By Rebecca Todesco, Editor, Mining Magazine
Australia’s Critical Minerals List contains more than 25 minerals, all of which have been flagged by the Federal Government as essential to modern technologies, economies and national security. As Australia ramps up mineral exploration in its race to net zero, there has been one critical mineral whose name has been bounced around more than usual.
The minerals involved in electric vehicle (EV) production, like lithium and cobalt, as well as some rare earth elements , have featured heavily in recent news stories, in part thanks to the increasing prevalence of EVs.
Tungsten, like many other critical minerals, flies below the radar in terms of public consciousness, despite being crucial to many everyday technologies such as electrodes, heating elements and even light globes.
Tungsten – also known as wolfram due to its primary ore mineral being wolframite – has found itself in the spotlight in recent months due to its unique qualities and potential applications in emerging technologies.
Assistant Director of Mineral Resource Assessment at Geoscience Australia, Alanah Hughes, said that tungsten alloys are some of the hardest metals and that tungsten is in possession of the highest melting point of all metals.
“Demand for these so-called ‘hard metals’ is currently being driven by electronics, construction, aerospace and military applications,” Ms Hughes said.
“Many of us use tungsten in everyday items such as light globes, and it is becoming more popular in modern jewellery. It is also used for computers and other electronics because it is such a good conductor of electricity and won’t overheat.”
Tungsten alloys are also used in cutting and drilling tools as some compounds are almost as hard as diamond. In addition to this, the mineral is also valuable in aviation, space and defence uses and even in darts and high-performance race cars.
Recent months have seen the revival of tungsten mining projects and operations around the world, and Australia is no exception. Following the suspension of operations at Wolfram Camp in 2016, the Kara mine in Tasmania became the only operating tungsten mine in Australia.
Now, however, another two mines have joined Kara – Mount Carbine in Queensland and the redeveloped Dolphin mine on King Island, Tasmania – bringing the total of operating tungsten mines across the country to three.
According to Ms Hughes, there has also been a recent discovery of a smaller, high-quality tungsten deposit 2km north of the Dolphin mine. Venture Minerals – owner of the Mount Lindsay deposit in Tasmania – is actively working towards tungsten production at this location by 2025.
In addition to this, EQ Resources was awarded the tender for resource exploration operations across a 480km2 area, which includes the abandoned tungsten mine Wolfram Camp in July 2023. The tender could provide an opportunity to turn former mines into assets. Situated 90km west of Cairns, miners have been extracting wolframite from the site since the 19th century.
Impacts on supply chain instability
Director of Mineral Resources Advice and Promotion at Geoscience Australia, Allison Britt, predicts that the revival of Australia’s tungsten mines will have a significant impact considering the supply chain instability currently facing the industry.
“Recent military conflicts have changed access to tungsten. Russia, who used to supply three per cent of global supply, now have less readily available stock. This has created increased dependency on products from China – which has limited export license for its products – and while they hold the largest resources of tungsten in the world at 47 per cent, and are by far the largest producer at 84 per cent, they are also the world’s largest consumer of tungsten.”
Ms Britt said the development of alternative supply chains of tungsten for Australia is now strategically important due to it being recognised as a critical mineral by not only Australia, but also the EU, the UK, Japan, Korea, India and the US.
“This is because of its importance to modern technologies for its hardness, stability and high melting point, which areparticularly valued for military technologies, such as armour-piercing shells and armoured tanks.”
This revival of tungsten mines and mining not just in Australia but around the world can be attributed to increased demand and restricted supply chains.
“The easing of COVID restrictions saw a rebound in manufacturing activity and tungsten demand, with a subsequent increase in price,” Ms Hughes said.
The price per tonne of tungsten has doubled over the past three years from a low in January 2021 of AU$269.77, to highs of AU$537.84 in October 2022 and AU$537.55 in September 2023.
“Although tungsten resources are found throughout the world, China generates more than 80 per cent of mine production and dominates global consumption. In response to the recent growth in global tungsten demand, customers have been seeking alternative sources of supply and have been looking to Australia with our high-quality tungsten deposits. However, we are still considered a minor producer on the world stage.”
Australia’s tungsten potential
On Australia’s Critical Minerals List, Australia’s geological potential for tungsten is listed as high, with prospective tungsten projects across the country.
According to Senior Mineral Systems Geoscientist, Yanbo Cheng, most tungsten mineral deposits around the globe are genetically related to granitic rocks, with tungsten mineralisationhaving been found in a number of different of mineral systems, such as granite-related sheeted-quartz veins, pegmatite, greisen, breccias, carbonate replacement/skarn, porphyry and orogenic gold-type deposits.
Mr Cheng said that Australia’s granitic rocks and geology demonstrate diverse features, including some good endowment for tungsten mineralisation.
“Although the currently active tungsten mines are on the eastern side of Australia, the largest reported tungsten resources in Australia are in Western Australia.”
Mr Cheng said that the O’Callaghans deposit – which is the largest tungsten resource in Australia – is a skarn type mineralisation associated with the O’Callaghans Granite and contains 0.23 million tonnes (Mt) tungsten trioxide (Newcrest Mining Limited, 2023).
After O’Callaghans, Australia’s second-largest reported tungsten resource is located at Mount Mulgine, which is an Archean porphyry tungsten-molybdenum system. According to the owner of Mount Mulgine, there is a combined Mineral Resource estimate of 219 Mt at 0.11 per cent tungsten trioxide (Tungsten Mining, 2023).
In addition, there are several other prospective tungsten projects in the Northern Territory and South Australia.
“Overall, there is a full spectrum of granitoids and the right geology for the formation of tungsten deposits in Australia, which is comparable to the tungsten fertilised terranes in other parts of the world, for example in south China and northwest Canada. Geologically the mineral potential for tungsten resources in Australia is high, but to realise this potential, more data and exploration is needed in the future,” Mr Cheng said.
Capitalising on Australia’s geological potential
According to Ms Hughes, “Tungsten is used in a number of critical technologies that are expected to grow in the next decade and Australia is well-placed, in terms of mining and minerals extraction expertise, to develop our tungsten resources and improve connections with emerging markets.”
Ms Hughes said Australia has an opportunity to develop strategically important projects to attract international investment, enhance domestic capability, and, importantly, demonstrate the sector’s ability to create economic opportunities for Australian communities.
“Australia has robust regulatory frameworks and highly regarded ESG credentials, helping to ensure that we are a premier destination for investment.
“Geoscience Australia is supporting decision-making throughout the value chain as demand for critical minerals is predicted to grow, whilst ESG considerations from production and processing are increasingly scrutinised.”
Despite Australia’s high geological potential for tungsten, and second-place ranking for tungsten resources after China, Ms Hughes said that on a world scale, Australia’s production is minor.
“Australia has a real opportunity to grow this sector of the economy by providing responsibly sourced tungsten to our global partners, and building stronger and more diverse supply chains.
“Australia’s mineral endowment makes us an attractive destination for mineral exploration, and our mining sector is underpinned by robust ESG credentials and legislative frameworks that will support investment in downstream processing and value creation.”
According to Ms Hughes, Geoscience Australia publishes an annual review of exploration expenditure, commodity trendsand significant results in the Australian Mineral Exploration Review and during the 2022 calendar year, Australian exploration expenditure for minor metals, a category which includes tungsten, increased by 66 per cent from the preceding year. Tungsten intercepts were reported in Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia whilst in the Northern Territory tungsten was encountered in association with molybdenum and copper.
“The owners of the Dolphin tungsten mine on King Island are looking into the feasibility of downstream processing of tungsten concentrate,” Ms Hughes said.
Anticipating tungsten demand
Mr Cheng said that tungsten consumption is likely to be influenced as the transition to renewables accelerates and new technologies, such as using tungsten in lithium-ion batteries, emerge.
“Australia is well-placed to become a leading supplier of critical minerals like tungsten as the world moves towards net zero emissions targets.
“Geoscience Australia has a proven record of expanding and delivering innovative knowledge in mineral resources and multiple successes developing novel resource exploration concepts and tools. These include the mineral systems concept and the Eureka prize-winning Economic Fairways Mapper developed in collaboration with Monash University, as part of the ongoing Exploring for the Future program.
“Extracting critical mineral resources from different mineral systems is an emerging field, and there is enormous scope for both academics and mineral explorers. Like many other critical minerals, tungsten resources can be discovered in a variety of mineral systems associated with diverse types of granitic rocks,” Mr Cheng said.
“Australia’s pre-competitive geoscience from government and academia, combined with world-leading mineral exploration, and development and production experience within the Australian mining industry will accelerate new discoveries and projects in brownfield and greenfield areas in the upcoming years.”