Nearly sixty years ago, Mt Deans in Western Australia flickered briefly into life as a tin mine, turning out 7.18 tonnes of the metal between 1965 and 1967. Now it is Aruma's lead project but this time it's all about lithium — and rubidium, cesium, potassium, tantalum and — of course — tin. A project forgotten in recent decades has sprung back into life.
That signifies that Aruma is not just in the battery metals race but will have speciality metals by-products and a fertiliser mineral. The company is not yet quite sure how the rubidium element will work out considering the global market needs only about 2,500 tonnes per year.
In early January the company's shares got a boost with the latest drilling results from Mt Deans as investors hopped aboard after intercepts such as 8m at 1.89% lithium and rubidium (from 26m down hole), 6m at 1.52% and 1m at 2.63% were released to the market.
And the pegmatites contain lepidolite. As managing director Glenn Grayson says, those grades are reasonable for spodumene, but impressive for mica. The mica minerals are really easy to concentrate to produce a 3-4% Li2O concentrate that has a large market in China.
Mr Grayson, after 28 years working as a geologist including being Kalgoorlie exploration manager for Barrick Gold and then Northern Star Resources (ASX:NST), joined the Perth-based lithium-gold explorer last year, being handpicked by then MD Peter Schwann to take over running the company Mr Schwann had listed in 2010. The two men have known each other since the 1990s, and Mr Grayson come into Aruma in 2022 to serve three months as chief operating officer, before stepping into the MD role. (Mr Schwann stays on as a non-executive director.)
Aruma has an unusual provenance: it has been sustained over the years by federal government research and development grants — all A$5.5 million of them over the life of the company, with $830,000 received in just 2022. The grants cover work on early-stage exploration projects, which means Aruma over the years has been involved with a range of deposits and commodities.
Now the company has settled into a lithium-gold groove and is not at present looking for anything else to take on.
Apart from Mt Deans, the company has four West Australian gold projects, the main focus being Salmon Gums, located 200km south of Kalgoorlie in the Western Australia wheatbelt. The ground is 30km along strike of the high-grade Scotia project owned by Pantoro Ltd (ASX:PNR) and Tulla Resources (ASX:TUL).
At present the company is working between cropping operations in the wheatbelt. This means some intense exploration between now and May, by which time the farmers will again be busy.
"In these early stages, we are working around the farmers," Mr Grayson says. "They've been really friendly and have bent over backwards to help us".
In December Aruma reported diamond drilling at Salmon Gums had expanded the greenstone footprint to 75km. In the past few months, the company carried out aeromagnetic and gravity surveys. The results of these surveys have generated new targets for the coming drilling season. Other metals such as molybdenum and rare earths are also on the menu.
"I think that 2023 will be a really good year for gold."
Its other gold projects include Melrose in the Pilbara, situated on the same regional structure that hosts the Paulsens and Mt Olympus gold mines.
At the Saltwater project, southwest of Newman, there are also rare earths possibilities. The former U308, one of the uranium explorers that flourished briefly in the yellowcake frenzy of 2007, held the Saltwater ground and it reported grab samples that assayed up to 11% rare earths. Now, the project is surrounded by ground pegged by Dreadnought Resources (ASX:DRE).
As Mr Grayson puts it: "Who knows what we'll find at Saltwater". Dreadnought have been very successful in exploring for rare earths.
But, at present, he recognises that investor interest in Aruma is primarily due to the promising lithium project. In fact, Mr Grayson calculates that two-thirds of the value of the company's shares is due to the battery metal.
And that means Mt Deans. Apart from the tin producing episode, the ground was subsequently explored by several companies, including the fabled CRA Exploration, the operation that left few stones unturned during its heyday in Australia.
Mt Deans covers 1.44 sq km 190km north of the port of Esperance.
Apart from the promising suite of minerals, the project is located beside the main highway (and railway line) running to Esperance on Western Australia's south coast. That port is now a major participant in the mining exports business, with large tonnages of nickel and iron ore dominating the port's trade figures. The road connection makes trucking output from Mt Deans to Esperance a simple operation.
On the disputed outlook for lithium — with analysts varying widely in their projected demand forecasts — Mr Grayson comes down on the side of the optimists. "I can't see supply outstripping demand in the next five years," he says.
He is encouraged by the reports of Chinese companies, not only building lithium hydroxide plants at home, but entering into offtake agreements with a range of early stage projects. Middle East interests are also pushing to get into the battery metals business but are running well behind the Chinese in terms of nailing down sources of supply.
While the market is looking very healthy — with lithium carbonate now fetching about A$90,000 per tonne — there is every chance that prices will recede at some point. But, likely, not to the extent of lessening enthusiasm for lithium projects. "The price doesn't need to stay that high to keep these projects viable," he adds.
After all, almost everything these days needs electricity. And that means batteries — and increasing quantities of lithium (and helped by being from a safe, reliable jurisdiction such as Australia).
While work will proceed on the gold projects, it is Mt Deans that will be the main focus. "What is making shareholder value is what I will be focusing on," says Mr Grayson. And if the rare earths can add value, that will become part of the mix, too.
Aruma at present has north of $3 million in the bank. Mr Grayson says when that gets down to about $2 million, he will look to raise new finance. "But we'll spend another million before we need to rattle the tin. That may happen in the second quarter of this year"
Of course, just the word "lithium" already has people knocking on the door looking to discuss how they, and their money, can come aboard.