Brazilian Nickel – Nickel for Tomorrow’s Demand

Developing low-cost, low-carbon nickel and cobalt production in Brazil is the prime focus of UK-based Brazilian Nickel. But that is just the beginning.

With demand for electric vehicles set to soar over the next decade, the focus on seeking out new raw materials to support that demand has also intensified – raw materials that should be secured in an environmentally friendly manner. This was the idea behind Brazilian Nickel, set up by CEO Mike Oxley and his wife, Anne, seven years ago.

Brazilian Nickel PLC is an unlisted UK public company established in May 2013 to develop nickel laterite heap leaching projects worldwide, beginning with its flagship Piauí Nickel Project in the north-eastern Piauí state, Brazil. The company was established by a team of experienced mining industry professionals with extensive experience in developing and commercialising the heap leaching of nickel laterites worldwide.

Mike Oxley describes the beginnings: “The company some of us were working for was bought out and changed direction, so we decided to apply our knowledge and experience in a company of our own. We were mainly just a group of engineers, none of us had ever run a mining company before, but we had a clear idea of what we wanted to do. We looked around the world for our first project, strengthened the team and generated interest in Brazil. That was one of our priority targets anyway, due to its good business environment, well-established mining industry and a large supply of trained people. From then, it took about a year to negotiate a deal.”

Flagship project

Today, the Piauí Nickel Project is an advanced-staged battery metals project. All metallurgical test work in support of a bankable feasibility study has been completed and the key environmental permits have been awarded. The project envisages near-term production of nickel hydroxide and cobalt hydroxide products to supply the expected surge in demand for these metals, to be used either for EV batteries or, traditionally, in stainless steel and alloys.

In October 2020, the company reached a major milestone in securing a US$ 27.57 million investment to advance the project. “The funding will put things in motion, with the aim of quickly starting small-scale production, while at the same time completing a bankable feasibility study on a much larger project at the site,” says Mike Oxley.

“The project targets 25,000 tonnes of nickel per year. This is a significant amount and represents around 1 per cent of current world production, which makes the project very interesting, and a globally significant operation.”

He further explains that the bankable feasibility study itself takes about a year for the full- scale project. In parallel, it is the plan to start construction early this year for the small- scale project, PNP 1000, with mining starting in the third quarter and nickel production expected in the second quarter of 2022.

“Mixed nickel hydroxide product or MHP is in the market in small amounts, but ours has a lot higher purity. With electrical vehicle sales on the rise, the demand for both nickel and cobalt is forecast to continue to grow over the coming years. We are now in discussions with potential customers from Japan and other parts of south-east Asia to Europe and North America that are finding our production very interesting,” says Mike Oxley.

Embedded in the community

With Brazilian Nickel, it is not just all about profits. The company aims to achieve the highest standards of health, safety and environmental performance as well as support local communities. Over the last six years, the company has fully integrated itself into the surrounding community, providing jobs, training and opportunities. “We want to be a local company, a Brazilian company,” affirms Mr Oxley.

As such, attracting a local workforce is important and developing local talent is part of the long-term strategy, he explains. “Atmospheric heap leaching is actually a simple process. We don’t use high temperatures and pressures, so, for one, it is inherently safer, and it also means that no special technical skills are required. We were able to recruit the majority of our workforce from the local area. People from this under-developed part of Brazil are very practical, resilient, used to looking after themselves, with just the right skills we needed.”

“The community is not something that is separate from us, it is our workforce. We are very much embedded in the community, we are part of that community. We have made a real effort to try and balance employment from different towns and villages in our area and to include the concept of diversity in the business,” he says. “My wife is very much focused on gender diversity as well. She did a lot of work to make sure that the site is female-friendly. Things like that do make a difference, and pushing these concepts from the top shows that they are taken very seriously.”

Sustainable growth

Mike Oxley insists that the objective is to leave behind a positive legacy of stronger, more sustainable communities once mining activities cease. “By maintaining high standards for protecting human health and the environment, and working in cooperation with our host communities and governments, we endeavour to create sustainable, long-term economic and social opportunities.”

In concluding, he affirms that while the Piauí Nickel Project will be the focus of the next couple of years, the company is looking further afield. Brazilian Nickel is already talking about other projects it can be involved in, be it via acquisitions or joint ventures. “There are a number of initiatives in Brazil and the wider region of Latin America. The plan is that once the Piauí project is further established, then project 2 and 3 can follow, to build a much larger nickel production profile.”

“While our primary focus will remain on completion of the Piauí Nickel Project development, we will also seek to acquire a portfolio of nickel laterite resources within Brazil, and the wider region, and to advance these projects, successfully adding value through each project stage.”

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