Uganda joins the graphite race

As global demand for graphite increases, more and more junior mining companies are reconsidering Africa’s high-quality graphite deposits, writes Leon Louw.

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The Orom project is located close to the Nile River and will source its water from this massive river.
Image: Nicola Theunissen

Graphite is high on the list of the most sought-after mineral of 2016 and 2017. Although historical exploration work was done on most graphite deposits in Africa, the surging demand for this rare mineral has prompted more than a dozen exploration companies to re-look these deposits. Several African countries host high-quality graphite deposits: Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, and Tanzania are all favourite destinations for graphite explorers — most listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX). Uganda has never featured as a prominent graphite player; in fact, it has never been regarded as a mining destination. About three years ago, an Australian mining company called Consolidated Africa Limited (CAL) went sniffing around in northern Uganda, near the Sudanese border, and stumbled upon one of the biggest deposits of graphite in Africa. The project was named Orom, and is now well and truly on the radar of global graphite buyers.

The essence of graphite
Being close to major infrastructure, the company is now well placed to take advantage of the worldwide demand for graphite. Graphite is the hexagonal crystalline form of carbon and occurs naturally as disseminated crystal flakes in high-grade metamorphic rocks, as veins, and as microcrystalline ‘amorphous’ graphite associated with metamorphosed coal seams.

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Graphite is punted as the new wonder material
Image: Shutterstock 

Natural graphite is an industrial mineral and can be used in almost every facet of manufacturing, such as electronics, atomic energy, hot metal processing, friction, coatings, aerospace, and powder metallurgy. However, differences in bulk and particle morphology, purity, and constraints on processing (grinding, screening) make certain varieties more suitable for certain applications than others. Graphite is classified into three types: flake graphite, vein graphite, and amorphous graphite.

According to CAL’s prospectus, China produces most natural graphite, followed closely by India, Brazil, and Canada, respectively. China is by far the largest producer of natural graphite (amorphous 55% and flake 45%).

History of Orom
According to Oscar van Antwerpen, director at mining consultancy firm Minrom, TMT Mining and Minrom undertook a small-scale trenching programme at Orom in January 2014. Minrom does exploration and due diligence work across Africa. In 2015, Minrom performed an extensive surface mapping programme at the Orom project.

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Yoweri Museveni has been president of Uganda since 29 January 1986.
Image: Nicola Theunissen

The results of the surface mapping were used to drill six diamond drilling boreholes, to investigate the lateral and depth extent of the graphite enriched layers. The drilling programme totalled 600m. The results of the drilling programme were successful, obtaining multiple intersections with graphite bearing ore units down to about 150m in depth.

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People living in the rural areas of northern Uganda will benefit immensely from future mining projects.
Image: Nicola Theunissen

“Actually, mapping of the area was done way back in the 1960s when a couple of samples were tested. The results from these historical samples were pretty good at about 13–14% and it was large jumbo flakes as well,” says Van Antwerpen. When CAL appointed Minrom, an established site did not exist. Minrom was appointed to complete the due diligence study and do the geological mapping and exploration work by digging several pits to quantify the resource. Van Antwerpen says the thick bush and mountainous terrain made it a challenging endeavour. “We decided to engage Geotech, a company that does aerial geophysical surveys, and they used the VTEM surveying method to get the mapping done,” says Van Antwerpen. Geotech is a Canadian company but it has an office in Johannesburg, South Africa, which serves the African market.

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The rail network in East Africa is expanding rapidly.
Image: Nicola Theunissen

Using VTEM surveys
According to Van Antwerpen, the VTEM survey allowed for fast terrain cover and a quick return of results. It got underway on 1 May 2016 and was completed 19 days later, within budget and on time. According to CAL’s prospectus, the initial results of the VTEM survey are indicating numerous anomalies in the project area and are currently still being processed. “The preliminary data provided by the geophysicists has been determined to provide positive feedback, which will assist in the demarcation of potential drilling target areas,” says Van Antwerpen. 

The VTEM survey grid covered an area of 151km² and a distance of about 833km in flight lines flown within the licenced area. Minrom and CAL will identify target areas that will be reworked, reviewed, and investigated.
CAL started investigating three anomalies during June by means of conventional trenching, to study the subsurface graphite occurrences and the lateral extensions and continuity of the ore body, and to determine the quality and grade distribution across the licence area. In addition, bulk samples will be extracted to perform flotation test work. This phase of the exploration work (Phase 3) will take about three months.

“The VTEM method has provided us with excellent data. It highlights that the layers are continuous and huge in size. We drilled a couple of boreholes to test the depth extent and the quality below — both were consistent. We then selected an area and applied for a mining license, which has been granted, so there is currently a mining license on the area,” explains Van Antwerpen.

The tenements are in the Orom district of northern Uganda. The site is 28km by road, north-east of the town of Orom and is accessible via gravel roads. The town of Orom is about 75km east of Kitgum in northern Uganda and can be accessed via the Kidepo-Gulu road from Orom to site. It takes about two and a half hours to travel from Kitgum to the project site.

According to Ross Lewis, project geologist at both Minrom and the Orom Graphite Project, the terrain in the area is mostly graphitic gneiss. “I would describe the bands in which we find the graphite flakes as a cluster or series of bands that are interweaved, forming high-grade sections in the metamorphic gneiss in the low-lying areas of the land,” says Lewis. “All these bands seem to have been deformed and kind of bent around a granitic pluton that has risen in the central area, which is the Orom mountain range.”

According to CAL’s prospectus, the Orom graphite deposit is hosted within the Neoproterozoic West Karamoja Group (Morton, 1969), which consists of dominantly basic garnet-bearing granulites and graphitic granulites. “This Neoproterozoic group were thrusted over the Neoarchean Amuru Group, consisting of gneisses and amphibolites, during the pan-African Orogeny. Younger intrusive bodies are scattered throughout the area and are generally associated with the Okaka Suit and the Lamwo Suite intrusives. The deposit is described as gneiss hosted flaky graphite. The mineralisation is hosted within rocks of Rom Mountain that are granulite or retrograde granulite facies, regionally metamorphosed rocks belonging to the Karamoja Group. The regional strike is north-northwest.

Working in Uganda
Uganda is well known as a tourist destination, but it has not yet opened to other industries. Although there are a few oil projects in the country, mining is still new in Uganda. Yoweri Museveni has been president for 31 years, and although many regard him as a typical African dictator, the economy and politics have been stable under his rule. 

“Uganda is a fantastic country to work in. There is a big United Nation’s base, the economy is stable, and you can see the growth in Uganda from month to month. I was in the country in September last year and went back again in February this year, and you can actually see the growth and development,” says Van Antwerpen.
Even though mining is totally new in Uganda (there are one or two small mines that are only in development stage), Van Antwerpen says the offices of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development is open and transparent and it functions. “You can track your mining licence application. When you apply for the licenses they will tell you whether the ground is available or not. If it is, you go through the process, pay your licence application fees, get your license and exploration tenements, fill in your reports, and submit all the necessary documentation.”

Rail and road network
Although not the best in the world, the infrastructure in Uganda is better than most other African countries. A Chinese construction company has built a good tar road all the way to Sudan, and there is an electric line that follows the road. The Orom project is bisected by a good quality road. According to Van Antwerpen, Chinese construction company Sinohydro is constructing a huge hydropower station in the north, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2018. This means there will almost be an oversupply of electricity in the northern parts of Uganda soon. 

The railway line is currently being run in two sections, from a town called Jinga in the south, to the capital Kampala and is a narrow-gauge line. It will eventually connect with a new railway line currently under construction (another Chinese company), which will run from Kampala to Nairobi in Kenya (this will be a meter or standard gauge). The line will eventually run all the way to the Port of Mombasa in Kenya. The section from the coast of Mombasa to Nairobi has been completed and the section from Nairobi to Kampala is currently in construction. The management contract for this section of the railway line has been awarded to an Australian rail management company. The section from Kampala to Jinga will be run and managed by East African Railways, but that will still be a narrow-gauge line. According to Van Antwerpen, CAL plans to mill the material at a hydropower station close to the mining site, investigating vacuum packing the product before putting it on rail to Kampala, where the line changes over to an electric line all the way to the Port of Mombasa. It is about 1 600km from the project site to Mombasa — all on rail. There will be a small section (about 200km) of tar road. Primary milling and flotation will occur on site.

“The biggest advantages in Uganda are the favourable logistics and a good functioning legal system. Government is transparent and the country is beckoning for investment.”

There will be a processing plant on site, which will perform limited comminution in the form of milling and some flotation. This will be followed by a few cleaning processes. “We are currently scoping the feasibility project, and still need to do limited definition drilling. These two projects happen concurrently. We have done delineation drilling and we have taken the samples and been through four stages of beneficiation test work through SGS in South Africa,” says Van Antwerpen. The results show that CAL will be able to liberate large jumbo flake material at a high quality and a high recovery rate. “The next stage would be to prove up a minable resource for two years and the rest will go into indicated and inferred category, so there will be a level of definition drilling required,” he adds. “We have core, and Minrom has also completed almost 5km of trenching. There is enough bulk sample material,” says Van Antwerpen. It will take about two years to get the plant up and running. 

For now, Orom is the only graphite project in this area. The deposit is on surface, so the method will be strip mining with simultaneous rehabilitation. It is an ecologically sensitive area and the mine will apply best practice. Once the topsoil is removed, the strips will be backfilled and re-vegetated. Water will be sourced from the nearby Nile River and recycled in the mining process. 

“The biggest advantages in Uganda are the favourable logistics and a good functioning legal system. Government is transparent and the country is beckoning for investment,” Van Antwerpen concludes.

Click below to read the September/October 2017 issue of African Mining

AM SeptOct2017

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