An intense research project
It all began with a discovery: a nickel deposit on the island of Halmahera, in the northern reaches of the Maluku archipelago in Indonesia. The site, believed to be one of the largest in the world, attracted the attention of Eramet, which decided to acquire the deposit. It was purchased in 2006 from Weda Bay Capitals, Inc., the Canadian company that owned the site.
Thus began a long period of preliminary analysis. This immense task confirmed expectations: in fact, the total estimate for the deposit doubled, from 4 to 9.3 million tons of nickel content. This was nothing less than the largest unexploited nickel deposit in the world. The contract, which provides for a 30-year production period, may be renewed twice, for a period of 10 years. At the time, the economic crisis was in full force, with the mining industry feeling the effects as nickel and manganese prices dropped. In 2013, the Weda Bay project experienced a fall in activity, and when Mitsubishi, Eramet's partner, decided to withdraw from the project, it was time to find a new ally.
A critical partnership
That's when Tsingshan came in. A giant on the Chinese market and the world's largest stainless-steel company, Tsingshan signed an agreement with Eramet in 2017. The two groups divided up the roles: Tsingshan took over construction and operation of the factories, as well as the infrastructure required for production. In addition to the deposit itself, Eramet brought its invaluable mining expertise, in a region that is particularly sensitive to erosion. Following Tsingshan's investment, Eramet owned 43% of the company that controlled Weda Bay, and Tsingshan 57%. "We bring our knowledge of the mine and offer recommendations for improving the project. In addition to the anticipated benefits, the collaboration with Tsingshan has allowed us to learn and strengthen our expertise even further," explains Martin Cezard, Weda Bay Project Director at Eramet.
On the ground, the pyrometallurgical process developed for this project, which employs electric furnaces, is one of the most competitive in the world. Using the ore extracted from Weda Bay, the process will allow factories to produce low-grade ferronickel, which is highly coveted by the world’s major stainless-steel customers.
A successful launch
In October 2019, mining operations began at Weda Bay: the first metric ton of ferronickel was produced, and a 1.6Mth stock of nickel ore was formed. Eventually, this ore will be supplied to the island's ferroalloy plants, including those belonging to the Eramet-Tsingshan joint venture.
On April 30, 2020, the first ferronickel casting took place, ahead of the initial schedule and just twenty months after construction had begun on the plant. The four production lines have been operational since May, with ferronickel output reaching 4.2 kt in June 2020.
In addition to these initial developments, Weda Bay is expected to open up new opportunities for the Group: the teams at Eramet are currently conducting studies on the production of nickel for electric vehicle batteries—which means more good prospects for the coming years.
- For more information on the Group's other development projects, click here.
30,000 metric tons per year
that is the amount of nickel content that is expected to be produced by 2021, including 13,000 tons for Eramet, which will handle its commercialization.