You might not have heard of zeolite, but there’s a good chance you will have come across at it some point without realizing.
It is a mineral which looks a lot like a light gray gravel when it is dug up from the ground. Unlike most types of gravel though, zeolite is microporous, which means it has lots of tiny holes in it.
“One tablespoon of zeolite powder has the same amount of surface area as a football field,” explains Derek Knight, the chief operating officer at Progressive Planet Solutions Inc (CVE:PLAN), a company which owns a zeolite mine in British Columbia, Canada.
Zeolite is also negatively charged, whereas most toxins have a positive charge, allowing one to bind with the other.
These qualities mean zeolite lends itself to a number of useful applications, including cat litter, water filtration and as a deodorizer.
Zeolite used in Fukushima clean-up
Perhaps the best demonstration of zeolite’s ability to remove toxins is the fact it was used by Japanese authorities to help clean rivers in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.
Progressive Planet has other plans for what it mines though. It is processing its zeolite for use in animal feed, as a pozzolan in cement and as an additive to soil.
That latter use is the real target at the moment. Progressive has hired an independent state-run lab to carry out some tests on the effect zeolite has on plant growth when it is added to a typical bag of compost.
With cannabis set to be legalized in Canada later this year, it makes sense that the first plant to be tested is hemp – a variety of cannabis.
The results are due shortly, but because it is an independent study, not even Knight knows what they will reveal.
Zeolite has the ability to hold onto nutrients and release them slowly
Given Progressive’s own research, what he and his team hope and expect to see is that the addition of zeolite helps to improve yield and growth whilst reducing the amount of nutrients wasted.
“If you dumped liquid fertilizer into a pot of soil the plant would eat up all of the nutrients it can while the stuff is running past before it drains out of the bottom, but what zeolite will do is soak it all up like a sponge,” says Knight.
“What you can do is pre-marinate the zeolite with water and nutrients and then put it into the soil blend and it will slowly release the nutrients as the plant wants them.”
Zeolite’s ability to hold onto nutrients and release them slowly is what makes its potential in animal feed exciting as well.
Without getting too graphic, livestock will often feed then pass out a large chunk of the nutrients without properly taking them into their system. That’s inefficient and costly for the farmer.
If zeolite, which is non-toxic, is mixed in with the feed, it will retain most of the nutrients which normally would have passed straight on through, allowing the animal more time to take them in.
Progressive hopes to capture a chunk of the zeolite market
On its website, Progressive highlights this “burgeoning demand” for the mineral and the market for zeolite in the US alone is expected to surpass US$4bn this year.
Progressive hopes to capture a small chunk of this market when its Z-1 mine near Cache Creek, BC becomes fully operational later this year.
There are no verified figures available just yet, but Knight and his team estimate that the mine is host to around 800,000 tonnes of zeolite.
With the kind of zeolite Progressive is mining selling for upwards of C$100 per tonne, the potential of the project is clear.
The plan is to have everything ready to start production and sales in early 2019 – a more-than-realistic timeline given that the processing facility should be up-and-running by late September.
Z-1 mine future looks bright
Z-1 has been the main focus of Knight and his partner and company chief executive Stephen Harpur since the two joined Progressive earlier this year.
It has been an intense few months, during which they have reshaped the company, offloaded a couple of assets and, with the help of C$500,000 from a recent fundraise, are within touching distance of taking Z-1 into production – no mean feat for a junior miner.
They have also rebranded the company, changing its name from Ashburton Ventures earlier this summer to signal the change in management and direction.
While Z-1 is undoubtedly the flagship project, there is more to Progressive than the zeolite property.
Company also involved in lithium
The company also has a 20% in a lithium project in Manitoba as well as a graphite property in Buckingham, Quebec, both of which Knight is clearly passionate about.
Based on the results from early drill holes, Knight estimates the project in Quebec is host to around 315,000 tonnes of graphite, although he readily admits more holes will need to be drilled to back up those claims.
“Those are my napkin calculations based on the early drill results, but we don’t have enough drill holes to ma make an official estimate.”
To build its knowledge of what is underground, Progressive’s plan is to carry out some more drilling at the project in the fourth quarter of this year.
Things are a little more advanced at the lithium project in Manitoba, where Progressive’s partner, Aussie outfit Nova Minerals, has released a JORC compliant resource estimate of 6.3mln tonnes at 1.38% lithium.
Nova also recently announced plans to spin off its 80% stake into a separate company, which it valued at C$24mln.
You don’t have to a math whizz to figure out that if Nova’s 80% stake is worth C$24mln, then Progressive’s 20% stake is, in theory, worth C$6mln. Just as a reminder: Progressive’s current market cap is a little over C$2.5mln.
Part of the issue Knight believes could be that the market is yet to appreciate that Progressive has changed a lot since Knight and Harpur came in, and that investors are still judging it on its past issues.
“With Ashburton, I think the company had a bit of a bad reputation as one that had no direction and kept changing projects and we’ve been trying to get past that with a new name and new management team.”
The “last step”, as Knight puts it, is that former chief executive Mike England will step down from the board which he hopes will show the market that the past issues are just that; in the past.
Alongside the problems associated with the old management, Knight reckons lithium and graphite investors either don’t get or aren’t interested in zeolite projects.
As such, he thinks it might be better to spin off the lithium and graphite assets into a separate company further down the line.
“People who care about lithium and graphite don’t necessarily care about zeolite, and vice versa. We think we would actually do better for our shareholders to separate those assets in the future.”