UK-based Tertiary Minerals has commissioned a technical and financial feasibility study from London-based St Barbara Consulting for the development of the world's largest known tantalum deposit, at Ghurrayeh in the northwest of the kingdom. After signing an exclusive 50-year mining lease with the government in February, Tantalum conducted tests which confirm the presence of some 94,000 tonnes of tantalum pentoxide - worth an estimated $15,000 million at current market prices - and significant deposits of niobium, yttrium and rare-earth oxides, worth an additional $15,000 million.
Composing a granite plug nearly 1 kilometre in diameter and some 250 metres in depth, the tantalum-rich deposit was surveyed by Canadian firm Watts, Griffis & McQuatt in the late 1970s. Geological data from the region has only recently been collated by the Saudi Geological Survey. The new study is expected to be completed in February 2003 and a decision on production will be made by the end of 2004.
Tantalum is a dense metal used in a variety of electronic components. The price of the metal has risen sharply over the last decade in response to growing demand for PCs and mobile phones.
'The scale of production depends on how much you can sell into the market, not how much you get out of the ground,' says Patrick Cheetham, executive chairman of Tertiary. 'The telecoms market has been depressed and large inventories have built up recently, but we predict strong demand at about the same time we have to make a production decision.'