Q&A Series #25: Interview with Ryan MacNeill

Tungsten Mining Australia - GRT Q&A with Ryan MacNeill

About the guest

Currently heading operations at the Mt Carbine Tungsten Mine through CRONIMET’s JV with EQ Resources, with a focus on growing operational capacities & outputs. In addition, I’m working toward growing the CRONIMET commodity trading footprint in nickel, critical metals, and stainless steel supply chain inputs from Australia.

Ryan is passionate about the development, financing, transaction structuring, and operational management of mining projects as a catalyst for project & company growth.

His value-add comes through leveraging my finance and legal background with my practical on-site operations management experience to link the technical, legal, and financial processes to drive the structuring, growth, and management of projects, transactions and companies in the industry.

The topic of discussion: Reviving the tungsten conversation in Australia

CRONIMET Australia Pty Ltd (CRA) is a project development and services company with global expertise in mining, waste reprocessing and metal recycling. CRA directly markets metal products from its operations to global end-users.

As a  JV partner to EQ Resources, which is Australia’s only primary tungsten producer, their focus is on securing and improving long term critical mineral supply from their tungsten mining operations at Mt Carbine in Far Northern Queensland.

Leveraging the XRT Sorting technology, CRONIMET Australia seeks to gain further competitive advantage and looks forward to watching the Mt Carbine operations grow into an international showpiece in the years to come.

The final assays of the 16-hole resource drilling programme (including 70m extensions drilled at hole EQ012) at the historic Far North Queensland mine have shown bonanza grade tungsten ore intercepts.

The results are potentially game-changers for the potential near-term re-opening of the old mine, as selected high-grade intercepts are in a zone less than 40 meters below the floor of the existing Andy White open pit.

Global Road Technology had the privilege to ‘revive the tungsten conversation’ in Australia with Ryan MacNeill, General Manager and Operations Director of CRONIMET Australia based in Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia.

1. Welcome Ryan. It’s great to have you here. Please tell us more about your role as General Manager and Operations Director of CRONIMET Australia Pty Ltd? What does your role entail?

Hi Keith, great to chat, thanks for the invite. My main focus is currently around our tungsten mining and processing operations at Mt Carbine and the Joint Venture we have with ASX listed EQ Resources (“EQR”). I’m currently responsible for the operations of the mining, crushing, screening, sensor-based sorting and gravity plant processing, which is supported by a great team we’ve been working hard to build. 

The Mt Carbine operation is fortunate to have a 12Mt low-grade stockpile (“LGS”) of mineralised rock on surface from historic mining operations. CRONIMET and EQR have a joint venture for the processing of this LGS as well as 2Mt of historic tailings. EQR holds the Mining Licence to develop the remaining in-situ resources located on the property which were further defined last year through additional drilling and the completion of a Bankable Feasibility Study (“BFS”) for the Project focusing on the LGS and open-cut resource available. 

Further work is required by EQR to define the potential for EQR to move from the open cast mining operations into the underground, however, there is a significant amount of resource remaining, so they’ll be working hard to understand this in better detail over the coming months.

So, my current role is mainly focused around the daily running of operations at Mt Carbine in all facets, I also spent quite a bit of time working with the EQR team on the BFS compiled last year mainly focusing on the operational, marketing and financial sections of the BFS. So, it’s a pretty diverse role, but we’ve worked hard to build our team and put the organisational structures in place to grow the operation and expand in a structured manner and I’m starting to see the benefit of that over the last few months. 

2. Can you take us through the daily operations of the Mt Carbine Tungsten Mine and your projected operational capacity and outputs? 

The operation started in 2020 with a focus solely on the historic tailings that is located at Mt Carbine and using gravity processing to extract tungsten. In September 2020, the team started commissioning a TOMRA XRT Sorter which is an excellent technology for the de-bulking of low-grade ores. 

XRT Sorting is a great technology, for those who haven’t had much exposure to it, a brief explanation is that ore is crushed and screened into a 6-40mm size fraction, then processed through the XRT Sorter, which in simple terms works like a baggage scanner at the airport, the ore particles go down a conveyor belt and are x-rayed to determine which particles are tungsten bearing and which are barren. The tungsten bearing particles, which is a much smaller mass of the total, are then ejected to a separate belt, using air jets, providing a concentrated tungsten ore and a barren waste. At Mt Carbine we upgrade our head feed on average around 10x meaning the downstream gravity processing plant has around 10% of the head feed mass to process. 

Late 2020 and early 2021, the operation focused on processing a mix of historic tailings (which still contains some tungsten) and LGS ores. From mid-2021, there was a shift in the operational focus to process primarily LGS material as it is a much higher-grade feed material for the processing plant but it requires crushing, screening and a significant amount of earth moving capacity to achieve the production rates targeted in the gravity plant. 

We’ve taken a structured approach to the development of the project with the focus on not over capitalising everything up front and making sure we worked with what we have to understand the material in detail and understand what really works for the operation. 

During the past year, the continuous improvement and structured expansion of the operation has seen a new earth moving fleet arrive, a power upgrade to allow our crushing, screening and XRT Sorting to operate on a 24/7 basis, the purchase of a new large Sandvik electric screen and a second XRT Sorter, with these final two pieces of equipment set for commissioning early this year as they’re currently being prepared for installation. 

Daily operations involve the crushing, screening, XRT Sorting and finally gravity plant processing of our ores on site, I have oversight and responsibility for all of these processes and my management team in place that I work with daily. We run 7-days a week, so there is never a lack of excitement happening on site. 

In terms of production, the past year saw the production of 1-2 containers of concentrate monthly, once we have our second XRT Sorter and new electric screen installed, we are targeting between 3-5 containers of tungsten concentrate being produced on a monthly basis with all production sourced from our LGS. 

Going forward, the operation will see the re-opening of the historic open pit, with production forecast from the open pit on an annual basis ranging from between 3,000 to 8,000t of concentrate which is between 12 and 33 containers on a monthly basis. This will all be subject to the final mining plan and is a result mainly of the high-grade nature of the in-situ resource remaining at Mt Carbine. 

More information on this can be found in the BFS published by EQR on their website.  

3. Let’s talk about all things growth. As you grow into your role, what are you doing to grow the CRONIMET commodity trading footprint in nickel, critical metals, and stainless steel supply chain inputs from Australia?

Currently, we are focusing the majority of our efforts on the installation of the remaining capital expansion projects at Mt Carbine and achieving our next production output targets which is taking a concentrated effort from myself and the wider team. That being said, we have opened discussions with a few near term producers that have mines planned to come online in the next 12-months and are working with to secure off-take of their future production to start growing the minerals trading book in Australia. 

The wider CRONIMET purchasing group has established off-takes for the global stainless steel business, in which it is globally one of the largest commodity traders, but those contracts are subject to confidentiality agreements at this point in time.

As the company grows in Australia, we’ll look to grow our trading footprint, mainly in commodities related to the stainless-steel supply chain as that’s where CRONIMET’s global network is strongest.

4. Mining projects are your forte! Take us through the important aspects of development, financing, transaction structuring and operational management of mining projects? How do you find synergy in all these aspects and go on to catalyze project and company growth? 

There is so much that can be said on this, so I’ll try and keep it brief! All of these aspects of project and corporate development really work hand in hand and when combined in the right way, ensure the accelerated and continued success of a project/company. In my opinion, so often, good projects fail or fail to be developed for the wrong reasons. Challenging capital structures, over capitalisation of smaller projects and lack of a practical approach to operations hold back several good projects from being developed or lead to their failure. 

I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a great senior management team early on in my career that was quite well balanced across all facets of the business. We were fortunate enough to be able to engage several types of projects and advance a technology (sensor-based sorting) across multiple commodities in a relatively short period of time. Most of the success we had with our projects and clients we engaged with came from a hands-on approach where the corporate team worked very closely with the technical team and allowed each to do their job. 

Striving to simplify the capital structure up front when fund raising and in the early stages of development has with a clear plan on cash calls to meet both technical and financial goals, in my experience, has been key catalyst for development. Whether it is project or corporate development, there needs to be a dynamic approach as there are always changing variables in the industry. The more clarity and synergy between the above, the easier and quicker the decision making is for all involved at each stage, this helps to achieve the desired results quicker.

5. Challenges are meant to be stepping stones to much experienced and better decision making. What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career and how have you made them stepping stones in your career trajectory?

When I entered the mining industry, I was coming from a financial and legal background, so I was sent to Zimbabwe to learn how things work in the real world and help develop a ferrochrome slag retreatment operation there. The practical experience I gained while mainly working with the production team taught me to think in a completely different way and taught me the practicalities of what it takes to run a mining project. This really set the base as a learning point to combine with my financial and legal aptitudes when applied to the development of mining companies and mining projects. 

Early lessons in my career around what I spoke about above on capital structure, over capitalisation and a dynamic and practical approach to development really were learnt early on and have been continued to be applied as I go forward.

The best piece of advice I received was to always stay humble and ask lots of questions, there is a team for a reason, gather everyone’s insight, rely on the experts, and make your decisions from there in the best interest of all parties.

6. Moving forward, how important are collaborations in driving business success and meeting the expectations of CRONIMET Australia shareholders, clients and associates?

I think collaboration is critical to any business success. CRONIMET Australia has been very fortunate to develop strong relationships with key businesses and institutions in the local industry such as TOMRA Sorting Solutions, Jukes Todd, the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland, DAS Mining Solutions, Arteh and of course EQ Resources, our joint venture partner. 

In terms of project success, we are actively growing our supplier base in the region and finding some really great suppliers to work with that are value add to the business and ensure the mining/processing operations meets our production targets. 

Our shareholders are very supportive of building strong relationships with all involved through the value chain, it has been very important for us as we know that strong relationships mean people are willing to go over and above if we’re in a pinch or will send relevant opportunities our way and we do the same for those we work with. It’s key to business growth and success.

I’m really looking forward to continuing to grow our network, relationships, and operations here in Australia. It’s an exciting time for our business and our operations and we’re very proud to be a part of the critical mineral supply chain for Australia in such an important mineral as tungsten.

Find out more about CRONIMET Australia PTY LTD: www.cronimet.de/en

Keith Nare

Technical Head of Communications for GRT, Keith leads GRT's content strategy across various platforms, whilst coordinating internally to build the voice and opinions of the GRT team. Keith is a product of Nelson Mandela University and his PhD work focuses on Polymer and Physical Chemistry. He was a Research Associate at SANRAL in South Africa and later spent time as a Visiting Research Associate to NTEC at the University of Nottingham in the UK. He is a former Director of Communications for CALROBO in the USA.

Keith is passionate and enthusiastic about health and safety, sustainability, networking and finding synergy through conversations.