Q&A – Robin Young

Materials World magazine
1 Sep 2017

Natalie Daniels talks to Robin Young about Russia’s mining industry, exploration plans and demand for nickel going forward. 

Tell me about your background and career to date.

I am a geological engineer with a mining background. I started as an exploration geologist, logging core and drill cuttings and slowly progressed up the management chain at various companies on projects around the world including China, Africa, Europe and South America. I went on to start my own geology consultancy business, working on resource mining and metallurgy processes – until 14 years ago, when one of my clients founded a project in Russia and key investors asked me to take over as CEO of Amur Minerals. 

What has been your biggest career highlight? 

It would have to be working across a range of countries and establishing professional relationships with different nationalities by adapting and embracing various cultures. I am also proud of the work we have accomplished at Amur – we have added a new component by opening our doors to China’s market, so the real bonus for me has been meeting all these people in regulatory or business situations. 

Can you tell me about the work underway at Amur Minerals?

We have been drilling to increase the size of the resource, and when we find that resource, we then infill drill the area to improve the quality from inferred to indicated or to measured, which can be used for mine plants or mine design. At the same time, we also obtain metallurgical samples for analysis to determine how much nickel, copper and platinum we can recover from each of the samples. This year, we have added a new component to our drill programme, where we test a small limited area that we already have an estimated resource for and go in to infill drill that area to reaccelerate the ore. There is no such thing as a world-class deposit – there are only world-class mines. We are not a world-class mine, but we anticipate getting there one day. To do so, we need to engineer. 

There are three components to our project. The first is mine site activity – there will be mining ores underground delivering to a plant that will process around six million tonnes per year and generate concentrate, which is then transferred to the rail network. This is component two – road. It connects our mine site to the railway and without it, the project will not be a success. Over the years, we have resupplied our site over a winter ice road that surrounds the main road we are building. We are in the process of having a first phase design worked on to inspect the route and make sure we haven't built it on any geological hazards. We will then establish operating costs to run our supplies and concentrate from the rail site to the mine site. We have requested proposals from two major Russian design institutes to complete this phase. The third component is building a rail signing around the Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM), which will be used to offload supply and fuel chemicals for the ore. We anticipate that this rail signing will have an additional component added – a furnace – to treat our concentrates and to make a low-grade map. Alternatively, we load the concentrate into rail cars and ship it to China, where there is a large demand. 

What benefits will the new road and smelter bring to the project?

The road connects a railroad to the mine site, and the only way to run the site is by resupplying fuel, chemicals, steel and people. Without a road, there is no mining project. The design is crucial to de-risk the project, as any road that allows us to resupply will take the risk out of the exploration. The smelter proposal goes back to how smelters charge their rates. We have nickel, cobalt, copper, platinum and palladium at our project site – the metallurgical recovery parts will be transferred into the concentrate. Rather than letting a smelter in an external country take it, we want to build our own smelter by taking the money that would be paid to an external source to process the ore, and build a smelter ourselves to de-risk the project. Any regenerated product from the smelter/furnace will be recovered onsite. 

How does Russia's mining industry compare with other countries and what are the benefits of mining there?

The Russian mining industry doesn't really compare well to the western style of work. It is far more regulated and a lot of that dates back to a time when 100% of the revenue for its new projects came from the Russian Government. As a result, a lot of rules and codes were written and adopted – it took a great deal of creativity out of the mining industry. It is not a standalone country on this basis – look at the former Soviet Union economy, they had the same thing. Russia is adopting a more western culture with codes nowadays, but China and all of Eastern Europe and Vietnam have the same style of what I would call a 'cookbook' approach to exploration. One of the benefits in the far east of Russia is that it is under explored, so, projects are undiscovered. We think that when we go into production, it could be one of the largest nickel producers in the world on an annual basis. We anticipate that we will be producing in excess of 30,000 tonnes of nickel per year, which would put us in the top ten producers. Russia gives us the opportunity to identify large areas of land that have the potential to generate large scale mining projects.

Where does the demand for nickel currently lie? 

Our project is the nearest foreign country to China, which is the world's top consumer of nickel. The others are South Korea and Japan, and once in production, we will be able to deliver concentrate or low-grade map into the rail system, which has access to deliver to all three of those countries. By geographical proximity, we are sitting right in the midst of the best markets. 

What are the challenges you face?

In the near term, we are going to continue through the exploration programme throughout 2017, but there is always the worry about major equipment failure. If something goes wrong, it is about getting it back up to speed to avoid losing productivity. Another issue that impacts mining production is weather. Every month we send in a helicopter with fresh supplies and to collect samples, and sometimes this can be delayed due to weather, which is what I call a nuisance factor. The areas of importance this year are to continue the road design, advance it as far as we can, and identify how we can make it most efficient so it is operating at its full capacity. We are also taking a look at detailed metallurgical work, which will allow us to come up with the final plant design, what the composition of the concentration will be and how we are going to handle it.

Robin Young is the CEO of Amur Minerals Corporation, Russia. He is a geological engineer with more than 37 years of experience in the mineral resources industry, having been responsible for exploration, development and production industries. Since 1980, he has been involved in the international sector and has been the CEO of two geological and mining consultancy companies. He took on the role of CEO of Amur Minerals in 2004.