The Kimberley is known around the globe for many things. 

Drawing 400,000 visitors annually, the region features an exceptionally diverse natural landscape that includes picturesque grasslands, majestic canyons, pristine and unpopulated beaches, and an abundance of wildlife.  

Aboriginal culture is rich and vibrant in the Kimberley, with approximately half the population being Indigenous and more than 100 Aboriginal communities throughout the region.  

What the Kimberley isn’t necessarily known for is its mining industry – which is partly why a final investment decision for stage 1 of the Thunderbird Mineral Sands Project is so significant. 

Thunderbird is one of the largest and highest-grade mineral sands deposits in the world and the decision paves the way for ilmenite and zircon to be added to the list of commodities produced in the Kimberley from 2024. 

When in production, the project is expected to produce 6.5 per cent of the world’s zircon and 3.5 per cent of its ilmenite. Leucoxene and rutile are other valuable heavy minerals found within the deposit. 

“The Thunderbird deposit was formed 100 million years ago when mineral sands from the mountains were eroded and washed into a bay – probably very similar to Roebuck Bay – and the concentration of those sands over time formed the deposit,” Kimberley Mineral Sands Chief Executive Officer Stuart Pether explained. 

“Around the Kimberley or in the South West, you will often see the darker black sand on the white sand beaches, these are more than likely mineral sands.   

“The two primary products that Thunderbird will make are zircon and ilmenite.  Zircon is the white in your porcelain cup, white on your tiles and white in the ceramics in your bathroom…it’s very durable and chemically inactive, that’s why it’s such a useful industrial mineral.  

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“Ilmenite, when ground, becomes white and opaque and is used in paint pigments primarily, but it is also in your sunburn cream and toothpaste.  Ilmenite can also be processed into titanium for use in aircrafts or sporting goods – and if you know anyone who has had a hip replacement, that’s titanium as well.   

“That is because it is non-reactive and can be used inside the human body without causing any issues.” 

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While the Kimberley may not be widely recognised for its mining history, it most certainly has one – although it has been more of a mainstay of the East Kimberley rather than West Kimberley.  

Halls Creek was the site of WA’s first goldrush and gold is still mined in the region. Iron Ore mining was established on Cockatoo and Koolan Islands more than 50 years ago and continues on Koolan Island today. There was also the Cadjebut/Lennard Shelf lead-zinc operations near Fitzroy Crossing which last transhipped product out of the Port of Derby around 2009. 

And for 35 years until 2020, probably the most famous Kimberley mine of them all – Rio Tinto’s Argyle – produced its world-renowned pink diamonds. 

Thunderbird, which lies approximately halfway between Broome and Derby, is forecast to have a 36-year mine life with Stage 1 expected to support 280 jobs once the production commences. 

“Our processing facility uses physical processes – we use gravity and magnetics to separate the ores from waste materials,” Pether said. 

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“In the first part of the processing facility we use spirals. Heavy mineral sands stay on the inside of the spiral and lighter silica and other waste materials are flung out to the outside.  We then collect those streams from the spirals to produce a heavy mineral concentrate. 

“That heavy mineral concentrate goes into a concentrate upgrade plant, where magnets are used to separate magnetic and non-magnetic ores.  Zircon is non-magnetic and ilmenite is magnetic. We do a ‘clean-up’ of the zircon which creates a higher-grade zircon concentrate and paramagnetic concentrate. 

“Ultimately 60 per cent of our value will come from the zircon, about 35 per cent of the value will come from ilmenite and about 5 per cent will come from the paramag.” 

The Kimberley Mineral Sands Project is a joint venture between Sheffield Resources Limited and Yansteel and is the culmination of a discovery Sheffield first made more than a decade ago. 

Much more than just an addition to WA’s mineral sands sector and another string to the Kimberley’s mining bow, the project has the potential to set new standards in terms of Indigenous opportunities and inclusion. 

There is already a commitment to achieving a site-wide target of 40 per cent Indigenous workers by year eight of operations and a strong focus on establishing an Indigenous workplace training fund, as well as tangible business and contracting opportunities. 

“Achieving the major milestone of the Final Investment Decision for Thunderbird now paves the way for an array of significant intergenerational benefits to flow to the Joombarn Buru Native Title Holders as well as to the broader local community,” Pether said. 

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