Tellurium comes First

Tellurium comes First

November 14, 2023 Off By Tom Duggan

Shortages loom, and prices are rising for the extremely rare and, by the same measure, versatile metalloid tellurium. Rio Tinto is now producing in North America. China currently dominates with production, but junior explorer Tellurium First has this in-demand metal clearly within its sights. 

Tellurium, one of the rarest metals on earth, is facing a shortage that could soon become scarce. The refrigeration industry is in a buying frenzy, causing a strain on supplies of tellurium needed for thermo-electrics. Moreover, the growing demand for advanced thin-film photovoltaic solar panels and ultra-high purity semiconductor materials adds to the pressure. All these factors have spotlighted the need to address the limited availability of tellurium. 

The US Department of Energy puts it like this: 

“Without significant expansion of the tellurium supply capacity, shortages of Te could occur in the short term (2025) and are likely in the medium term (2025-2035),” the DOE’s 2023 Critical Minerals Assessment warned. 

But even though it is essential for cadmium-telluride solar panels and new lithium-tellurium batteries with the potential to eliminate range anxiety for electric vehicles, it has so far evaded full market attention.  

Tellurium First President and CEO Tyrone Docherty says the copper by-product offers his junior company a significant advantage against its peers. 

“Due to its scarcity, we focused on its benefits in the critical and green space. Demand has increased and is expected to continue,” Docherty says. 

“Solar companies are mainly driving that demand; however, other areas are starting to look for new supplies.” 

Docherty’s company is currently the lone explorer with a focus there, but he does not expect to be left alone for long. 

“I fully expect others to focus on tellurium,” Docherty says.

As is common in the markets, some companies follow what is new and exciting and jump in. We definitely have a first mover advantage as we have been leading the charge for the better part of a decade,” he says. 

But he caveats the unlikely prospect of seeing standalone tellurium projects popping up all over Canada like we have witnessed with lithium, at least any time soon. 

“Other minerals will primarily drive the economics of any tellurium property,” he points out. 

“It will make up a minor part of the economic picture. Every company will have to have other metals to drive the project. 

“With us, it is our high-grade gold-silver that happens to have the tellurium with it. Many properties that contain tellurium do not have other economic metals as drivers.” 

Chinese production dominates the supply of many minerals, and Docherty believes there are no significant barriers to increasing production in the West.  

In fact, with the recent push by western governments for “Green & Critical” minerals, it should be an asset as opposed to a hindrance,” he notes. 

Suppose junior companies are looking for proof of the value of exploring with an eye towards the brittle, mildly toxic, silvery-white metalloid. In that case, it lies in Rio Tinto’s decision to invest as just the second US producer. 

The plant provides product to First Solar, the only US-headquartered company among the world’s 10 largest module producers, who said it was a big win for responsibly produced American solar as it continues to grow – and demand alongside. 

“We’re thrilled that tellurium from Kennecott will play a role in powering our country’s transition to a sustainable energy future,” First Solar Chief Manufacturing Operations Officer Mike Koralewski said. 

First Solar once looked at mining itself, and due to exceptional grades, the Klondike Project was considered a top worldwide prospect and was planned as a primary source for its production. 

Surface sampling found high grades of gold and tellurium in a nationwide exploration program. Although First Solar left the mining game, the Deer Horn Project remains a unique asset with high grades and extensive mineralisation. A recent mapping campaign provided more drill targets and a structural connection between copper porphyry and Au-Ag-Te systems.  

The company now awaits analysis of an Induced Polarisation geophysical survey expected to give a much better understanding of subsurface structure and sulphide mineralisation. 

“We have identified obvious porphyry and abundant associated sulphide mineralisation on the surface at Deer Horn. The IP data should fill in many blanks in our data as we move into next year’s expanded program,” Docherty said. 

An expanded program with results which could come alongside a North American shortfall. 

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