Q&A from the experts: In Conversation with Mark Saxon

March 1, 2021
Mark Saxon
CEO & President at Medallion Resources Ltd.

Mark Saxon is an Australian geologist, who graduated from the University of Melbourne, Australia in 1991 with a BSc (Hons) degree. After his graduation, Mark spent nine years (from 1992 until 2001) working at Pasminco Ltd, formerly the world’s largest producer of zinc. Afterward, he became the CEO of Tasman Metals Ltd, a Scandinavian Rare Earth Element (REE) explorer. More recently, Mark has held roles with Mawson Gold, also in Scandinavia, and until last year was the CEO & President of Leading-Edge Metals Corp, an EU-based graphite miner and REE explorer. In 2020, Mark became the CEO & President of Medallion Resources Ltd, a company which is focused on the production of high-value REEs from monazite feedstocks.

Timothy Strong: What were your biggest influences when you first started out in geology?

Mark Saxon: I was very fortunate to be selected straight from university into the Graduate Recruitment Program for one of the Australian majors (Pasminco), who were a strong mining house with an active exploration group. This program gave me a rapid industry overview and introduced me to a diverse group of geoscientists who quickly taught me how much I didn’t know. I was also lucky to be paired early on with a great field assistant, who kept me pointing in the right direction.

Graduate Recruitment Programs for geoscientists were an important part of the industry at the time, and it would be great to see more emphasis placed on similar mentoring today.

TS: Which country has left the strongest impression on you and why?

MS: That would definitely be Peru. Pasminco completed a corporate takeover of a company with a significant operation in Peru, and a few of us were sent from Australia to the office in Lima. At first, it was well outside of my comfort zone as my prior roles had been in Australia, but it quickly became home.

The Peruvian experience became the foundation of my career and provided a deep personal and professional network that survives today.

TS: What has been the proudest moment of your career to date?

MS: I’ve been involved with a couple of major discoveries that come to mind. The Ayawilca Zn- Ag project being developed by Tinka Resources in Peru is one that myself and my business partner Michael Hudson generated as a pure greenfield target. The discovery path there has been great to watch, as it has become one of the world’s most significant undeveloped Zn deposits.

Next to that would be the Norra Kärr REE project in Sweden, which we discovered as Tasman Metals Ltd in 2009 by following up some unusual looking rocks in the archive of the Swedish Geological Survey. We drilled the first holes into the project and took it through to a very positive pre-feasibility study. Norra Kärr is the most important REE resource for Europe and can be a producer for many decades.

TS: You have a considerable amount of Scandinavian experience, what are some of the challenges for mineral exploration in a cold/arctic environment?

MS: The Nordic conditions are cold and challenging, and the safety of staff and contractors is paramount in such an environment. The biggest surprise in coming from Australia, however, was how quickly the seasons change up near the Arctic Circle. The opportunity for planned sampling or mapping can be lost for six months with an early snowfall so work needs to be well planned to match the seasons.

TS: What is the most important rule (or set of rules) that geologists have to follow in order to overcome these challenges and secure a successful operation when working in extremely cold environments?

MS: Employing local people is the only real path to success and safety when working in a challenging environment. The issues that seemed rare and unique to our ex-pats were just daily life for our Swedish team: knowing what gear to have with you at what time, and that there are days when it is just smartest to stay home. The forestry industry works almost year-round, and with the right preparation, the exploration industry can as well.

Good planning is essential, particularly when drilling is involved. Most drilling occurs in the winter when frozen ground makes access easier, but you have to know where your drill sites are and building drill snow roads is a time-consuming process. The right team and funding need to be in place at the right time to achieve this.

TS: Scandinavia, whilst being a relatively safe jurisdiction in terms of exploration risk, can be an expensive place to operate, how do you mitigate these higher costs?

MS: The perception that the Nordic region and Sweden, in particular, are expensive is something we have dealt with many times. There are certainly some areas where costs are high, but this is mitigated by the great infrastructure and the high skills of local people. It is very easy to employ the right person for the right job, and the high education standard means that even graduates are immediately work-ready.

The infrastructure of the Nordic region is an amazing benefit to exploration that keeps costs under control. The national and forest road network mean that driving almost everywhere is possible, and drilling is done, even in the Arctic, without helicopter support. There is a network of local villages, so exploration camps aren’t needed, and mobile phones work across the entire region, removing the need for more expensive options.

Efficiency and predictability in decision-making by permitting authorities is a key factor for attractive mining jurisdictions. Sweden has struggled in this regard in the past five years, with many projects trapped by slow decisions.

TS: You have worked a lot with REEs, not a common commodity choice for a geologist. Can you briefly explain their importance and how did you get into the field?

MS: I was working in Sweden in early 2009 when the first round of interest in REEs began to build. We began to take a look at project ideas and quickly learned that Sweden is ‘the home of REEs’, as most had been discovered and named there. Through some research, first-mover advantage and good fortune, we managed to discover one of the largest known heavy REE deposits.

REEs are a small but very important part of the mining industry. Their importance is in part due to the supply-demand imbalance where Chinese suppliers hold control over key parts of the supply chain. But most critically, REEs make an important contribution to technology for low carbon-emitting energy generation, storage and use, thus their demand is growing rapidly.

Preparing for winter drilling, Central Sweden

TS: Rare Earth Elements are a hot topic at the present time, especially with Investors in the US. Could you let us know what the current ‘state of the market is’?

MS: The REE market is hot at present, along with most battery and EV metals. The recent RTO by MP Materials is a strong sign of market health and stocks are almost all trading near their medium-term highs.

The physical market for REEs is complex, as we are talking about 17 elements, each with unique properties and customers. However, in terms of value, the market is being driven by demand for the metals that are used in REE permanent magnets. This is neodymium, praseodymium and to a lesser degree dysprosium and terbium, all of which have seen more than a 50% rise in price over the last 12 months.

The REE industry remains strongly influenced by Chinese production and Chinese investment into external projects.

TS: Where is the REE market heading?

MS: The price development for most REEs looks positive over the coming five to ten years, as no major mining project has been developed or is in the pipeline, and demand is growing strongly. We need to be mindful, however, that these are industrial minerals, so the price that customers are willing to pay is capped at a point where substitution can occur. A huge price spike will not help our industry develop over the longer term.

The capital and technical risk hurdle for mine development in REEs are still very high. This is pushing the industry to consider by-product minerals and recycling, as output can grow progressively in line with demand.

TS: There has been a focus on carbonatite hosts of REEs, these have proven to be hard to extract and process, what is the solution?

MS: Hard rock REE project development is challenging, and the last major investment was in Mt Weld, Western Australia by Lynas Corp, around 10 years ago. This project became a great success but took a long time to get there and required patience and support from the Japanese partners. The mining industry outside of China does not have much experience in commissioning REE projects.

Carbonatite and alkaline intrusions are mineralogically complex, each requiring unique processing solutions to be perfected on an industrial scale. For carbonatites, the REE grade can be high (>3%) but the distribution of the REEs may not be appropriate for the magnet metals Nd Pr. Alkaline intrusions will have lower grades (>0.5%) but are more skewed to the higher value-heavy REEs and often have attractive by-product metals.

Lots of test work by experienced groups, which can support both the chemistry and the engineering, is the only answer. More broadly, utilizing waste and by-product materials that can be rich in REEs is gaining more support.

TS: Tell us more about Medallion Resource and what makes it different?

MS: I am presently CEO of Medallion Resources (TSX.V:MDL), a Canadian-listed company working on technologies to extract REEs from mineral sand monazite, and separate these REEs into high-value products ready for the magnet industry.

This is a unique business model, different from most of our peers in the REE industry, but one built on observing what has worked for decades for Chinese REE producers. We are not limited by one project that may sit in a remote or challenging location but can build our processing facility in an optimal location near mineral sand suppliers or REE customers.

As we utilize a by-product mineral that is presently passing to waste streams, the Medallion Monazite Process does not require additional mining. Our research focus has been to optimize the extraction of REEs, alongside the reuse of acid and re-capture of heat to deliver a very efficient process. By pairing this with an efficient REE separation technology, we believe we can be a very low-cost and sustainable REE supplier.

TS: What was the driving force for Medallion to focus on REE extraction from mineral sands?

MS: Mineral sand monazite is an abundant high-grade Nd Pr feedstock. It is relatively low cost, as it is produced as a by-product from the mining of zircon and titanium minerals. By utilizing a by-product, we do not require any additional mining, which is great for the economics of our process. It is also very positive from a life cycle assessment point of view, as we are minimizing the carbon footprint of REE production.

Any mineral sand monazite that is traded today ends up in China for processing. Medallion saw the opportunity to develop a new and highly-efficient technology, then divert some of this monazite to provide REEs to ex-China customers.

TS: What is the importance of mineral sands in future REE production?

MS: Medallion Resources has been a lone voice outside of China and India describing the attractive nature of a mineral sand monazite-based business. In the last six months, we have seen a number of companies also seeking opportunities in the sector, so I feel the importance of this feedstock will soon be recognized.

TS: You recently became involved as a technical advisor with a UK junior gold explorer, Origin Exploration Ltd. Do you see Africa as an important source of metals in the next ten years?

MS: The discovery potential of Africa is diverse but excellent, including the metals and materials that will become important in the energy transition. Large deposits of lithium, graphite, copper and cobalt have been discovered and are being developed. African-sourced materials should become a cornerstone of the EV and battery industries in coming years.

However, supporting the EV and battery industries is not easy. High purity materials are required, which can be both chemical- and energy-intensive to manufacture. Supply security, sustainable and ethical production and the ability to deliver over the long term will all be important if Africa or other emerging regions seek to fulfill the needs of the EV market.

TS: Do you think investor sentiment towards exploration in Africa will change and become more positive?

MS: Without a doubt. The discovery potential is exceptionally strong, across a wide range of metals and deposit styles. The challenge is for companies and countries to demonstrate that projects can be developed in a timely manner while meeting and exceeding the sustainability and ESG expectations of investors in the UK, Australia or Canada.

TS: Which is the most commonly used method for REE drilling?

MS: As REE deposits tend to be mineralogically complex, diamond drilling is used over other forms of drilling to get the clearest view on the deposit.

TS: From your point of view will REE exploration drilled meters per annum increase globally?

MS: We are very likely to see substantial growth, in line with the demand for discovery and development of all battery and EV metals and minerals.

TS: Can you share your most interesting experience with an exploration diamond drilling contractor?

MS: I’m fortunate to say most of my drilling experiences have been positive ones. We did have an interesting one when a small group of anti-mining protestors arrived on a drilling site and locked themselves to the rig.

The drillers shut the rig down, secured the site and went and had a long lunch. After a number of hours, the protestors called the police to see when they would be evicted. As there had been no complaints lodged by the drillers, the police didn’t know or care about the protestors, so they were left to unlock themselves and wander away.

TS: Name an industry development or technology that turned out to be a total game-changer.

MS: For me, it would be accurate and affordable GPS. The start of my career involved sticking pins through aerial photographs to try and work out where samples came from or where drill holes should go. In remote locations, it was a real challenge to get a surveyor on site, so to be able to be accurate quickly was a huge leap forward.

TS: If you could go back to the very beginning of your career and give yourself a single piece of industry-related advice what would that be?

MS: To recognize and accept the cyclical nature of the exploration and mining business. I’ve seen many share prices go up when they should go down and down when they should go up, based on the theory of the ‘tide lifting all boats’ (the concept that an improved economy will benefit all participants). It is important to respect where you are in the commodity cycle, know that it will turn and keep on trying to do good work on the best projects you have available.

TS: What is in the future for mineral exploration?

MS: I think our industry is one that we can be very proud of, with a bright future. The energy transition has shined a spotlight on how important exploration and mining are.

The need for ethically produced lithium, REE, graphite and copper for batteries and EVs is launching a new exploration and mining super-cycle that may last for decades. While there are many opportunities for improvements in our industry, I believe it is deeply committed to a path of continual improvement and greater sustainability.

For more information visit: www.medallionresources.com