Rutile and ilmenite - Australian production and potential profile


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See also Titanium dioxide pigment


Rutile is titanium dioxide which is naturally occurring in Australia, USA, India and South Africa. Synthetic rutile can be produced from naturally occurring ilmenite which is a complex oxide with iron. Rutile is used in the manufacture of titanium dioxide pigment.

In Australia most rutile is produced from ilmenite as it naturally occurs in accessible high concentrations and in a form which allows the ready extraction of the rutile. These favourable factors have made ilmenite a competitive raw material for Australia's producers reflected in high export activity. Australia supplies about 40 per cent of the world's ilmenite and about 25 per cent of its rutile.

Just seven producers around the world control 93 per cent of world production. 

Rutile in 1999 was worth A$750 per tonne (zircon around $560 per tonne), ilmenite around $120 per tonne.

World production of titanium dioxide was 4.4 million tonnes (up 8 per cent on 1997)

Murray Basin

Ilmenite is found in the Murray Basin and the Wimmera (covers 600 000 sq km in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia ranging from Broken Hill to Horsham from Renmark to Bendigo. The deposits are high grade, easily mined and processed. Potential production could be 300 000 to 400 000 tonnes per year.  bulletThe Wemen deposit between Swan Hill and Mildura under consideration by Western Metals (Aberfoyle and RZM) with a scale of production of 23 000 tonnes per year of rutile and 10 000 tonnes of zircon. It contains 19.2 million tonnes assaying at 4.4 per cent titanium mineral of which 28 per cent is high-grade rutile, 12 per cent is zircon and 44 per cent ilmenite.  bulletThe Ginko deposit has between 50 and 100 million tonnes assaying 4 per cent titanium minerals.  bulletKulwin contains 430 000 tonnes of rutile and 260 000 tonnes of zircon.


Company Heavy minerals (million tonnes)
Murray Basin Titanium 15 
Basin Minerals 24
Bemax Resources 28
Iluka Resources 11
Southern Titanium 6
Auspac Resources 27

The bulk of the minerals is zircon and rutile rather than its cheaper cousin, ilmenite. bulletCrayfish as 1200 m of mineralisation with a thickness of 10m to 20m with 2 to 3 per cent of minerals.  bulletSnapper has a width of 200m to 300 m with one drill hole grading 15 per cent of heavy minerals. 

Five mines could be operating by 2002 close to Mildura. By 2010, the region could become the world's largest single source of titanium minerals with closure of the BHP Beenup mine in Western Australia and the Sierra Leone mine due to civil war.


Bemax (75% ownership in partnership with Probo Mining) are developing a region 130 km north of Mildura in the Murray Basin at Ginkgo in New South Wales. The deposit contains 184 million tonnes at 3.2 per cent; with a high ratio of rutile to ilmenite it is worth around A$250 per tonne compared with $160 per tonne for ilmenite as in WA. The product will be trucked to Broken Hill for concentration. and railed to Port Pirie for export.

Southern Titanium

July 2001: Southern Titanium NL is calling for for tenders for the construction of processing facilities at its Mindarie mineral sands project in the Murray Basin region of South Australia.

Annual production from the Mindarie project was upgraded to 38,800 tonnes of ceramic grade zircon, 6,400 tonnes of premium rutile, 7,400 tonnes of standard rutile, 7,100 tonnes of leucoxene and 86,000 tonnes of ilmenite. Expected mineral recoveries from a continuously operating circuit are projected to be zircon 65 per cent, rutile 52 per cent and ilmenite 78 per cent. Mindarie currently has total reserves of 44 million tonnes, grading 3.86 per cent heavy minerals (HM) containing 1.7 million tonnes of HM. The project's total resource is currently 262.4 million tonnes grading 2.33 per cent HM, containing 6.1 million tonnes of HM.

The Perth-based company aims to become a reliable supplier of ceramic grade zircon to the world ceramic industry and to supply premium rutile to world titanium markets. As a secondary activity, Southern Titanium will supply modest tonnages of standard rutile, leucoxene and ilmenite to world markets. Revenue from zircon production and sale and high titanium mineral production and sale will total about 84 per cent of total project revenue. The remaining portion of the revenue stream will relate to ilmenite production and sale.


In August 2001, AUSTPAC Resources NL and Ticor Ltd announced an investigation into the establishment of a synthetic rutile facility to upgrade ilmenite from the Murray Basin. The study is being conducted under the 50-50 Austpac-Ticor joint venture, executed in July 2000, for the worldwide application of Austpac's ERMS and EARS technologies. The estimated cost of the facility was not disclosed. Ticor said Wemen is the first deposit to produce heavy minerals in the Murray Basin and there are several companies undertaking feasibility studies on other defined resources. The facility would use the ERMS and EARS processes to upgrade the ilmenite to a preferred feedstock for the chloride-route TiO(2) pigment producers. Ticor said Austpac has already confirmed through pilot plant work at Newcastle that its processes are suited to the upgrading of Murray Basin amenities which, generally, are not amenable to traditional Becher synthetic rutile technology. Murray Basin ilmenite concentrates also contain elevated levels of chromite, an impurity that is an impediment to marketing of the ilmenite. An ERMS/EARS facility could have the flexibility to remove chromite and so produce saleable ilmenite, as well as high grade synthetic rutile for export. The study will examine potential plant locations within the broader Murray Basin region, raw material supply options (including ilmenite, coal or other energy sources, and water), infrastructure and government incentives.


Auspac (EARS process), the ilmenite is roasted to convert the titanium component into the insoluble rutile form and the iron component is conditioned for leaching. The product is then rapidly leached at atmospheric pressure in hydrochloric acid to remove the iron, leaving rutile crystals in the former ilmenite grain. This "synthetic" rutile (typically 96% to 98% TiO2)is then washed, filtered and heated (calcined) for sale. The iron chloride leach liquors are processed to regenerate the acid, with iron oxide pellets that can be sold (eg. steel or cement industries).

The process

bulletproduces a very high grade product in a continuous in the world, bulletproduces a saleable iron co-product (rather than the waste iron oxide muds produced by other synthetic rutile processes),

bulletis less capital intensive than most other processes,

bulletregenerates all of the acid used in leaching, to produce strong acid (typically 25% w/w HCl while other processes produce 18% w/w HCl).

Synthetic rutile producers

Manufacturers of synthetic rutile are :

Iluka Resources (formerly Westralian Sands Limited) at Capel near Bunbury with capacity of 300 000 tpa from May 1997. The company confirmed in August 1999, that it would bring forward to early October, the closure of the former RGC's mine and synthetic rutile plant at Capel, WA (relying on the nearby former Westralian Sands mine); the company is also expected to announce soon that it will begin dry-mining its Pharoah's Flat deposit near Eneabba, WA.
Pig iron
In October 1997, Iluka Resources (formerly Westralian Sands) announced a A$18.5m investment in a pilot pig iron plant which at stage 2 (commissioning in year 2000), would generate 100 000 tpa of pig iron worth US$150 per tonne (with sales of A$17 million and an EBIT of A$2.8 million). The process involves compressing iron oxide into briquettes for smelting into pig iron. As the iron oxide is very fine, it cannot be processed in a blast furnace. Westralian Sands has developed a patented process to agglomerate the iron oxide with lime and carbon to a briquette that can be handled in a blast furnace. While a high cost energy-intensive operation, Westralian Sands avoids environmentally sensitive disposal of iron oxide (see rutile).

The company also operates a lime plant at Dongara in Western Australia.

bulletIluka Resources (formerly Renison Goldfields Corporation (RGC)) at Capel (near Bunbury) and Geraldton (Narngulu) where it produces natural rutile (in October 1998, RGC closed its rutile processing plant at Enneabba in favour of its Narngalu operation, also cutting output by 25 per cent having recorded a A$3.2million operating loss.

Total production capacity of synthetic rutile is about 200 000 tonnes.
The Eneaba operations comprise a dredge mine and a dry mine, and two wet concentrators with output railed to Narngulu. Total company employment is 400.

Iluka is also interested in the Murray Basin but does not expect mining there until 2005.

In July 1998, it was announced that the titanium mineral business of RGC would merge with Westralian Sands (62:38 respectively) to trade as Iluka Resources. The rationalisation process would save $100 million per year off operating costs. The new merger will produce 1.3 million tonnes of ilmenite, 375 000 tonnes of zircon, and 475 000 tonnes of synthetic rutile. The new business will supply 32 per cent of world's titanium dioxide market and 37 per cent of the zircon production and only slightly smaller than Richards's Bay. The largest shareholder will be Hanson Trust of Britain with 24 per cent (which was the largest shareholder in RGC). In Jan 1999, the merger reported production of 249,390 tonnes of synthetic rutile and 499,077 tonnes of ilmenite (including that used in production of synthetic rutile).

TheTiwest Joint Venture (formerly Cooljarloo Joint Venture) was established in 1990 as a joint venture of Minproc and Kerr McGee. Tiwest operates with a primary processing plant at Chandala producing crude titanium dioxide (synthetic rutile) from ilmenite from their mine at Cooljarloo (near Eneabba) 180 km north of Perth.

The operation uses the thermal Becher process to convert 330 000 tonnes ilmenite to 190 000 tonnes of synthetic rutile (94 per cent titanium dioxide). The iron oxide waste by-product is returned to the mine site. About one-half, 65 000 tonnes, of the synthetic rutile is used to produce pigment with technology based on the Kerr McGee 100 000 tonne USA plant.

Tiwest synthetic rutile plant at Chandala
Tiwest plant at Chandala.

The Kwinana plant processes about half of the rutile produced at Chandala to the pigment producing about 60 000 tonnes per year of titanium dioxide pigment. The balance of the synthetic rutile, and all the natural rutile is sold largely to their part owners (Kerr McGee) in the USA.

Tiwest  forecast 40% growth in profit for calendar year 2000; the company will increase heavy mineral concentrate (HMC) production from Cooljarloo, WA by at least 35% and increase capacity of its synthetic rutile plant at Chandala to match.

Ticor Ltd expects to raise about $140 mill from the sale of its non-core coal and sodium cyanide businesses, so that it can become a pure mineral sands producer and consolidate its position (currently number 3) in the Indian/Pacific region (September 1999). 

Ticor is effectively the titanium arm of South Africanmetals giant Iscor.  which owns 40 per cent of the Australian company Ticor. By 2005 Ticor plans to be the third largest titanium minerals producer after Rio Tinto and Iluka. In 2001, Ticor purchased a 40 per cent interest in IHM heavy minerals project in KwaZulu Natal from Iscor planning 60 000 tonnes of heavy minerals with 150 000 tonnes of ilmenite and 550 000 tonnes of ilmenite at commissioning in 2001.By 2003 it plans to produce titanium dioxide slag.


In 1995, Western Australia produced 1 million tonnes of ilmenite of which around one-half was converted (Becher process) to 0.45 million tonnes of synthetic rutile. About 125 000 tonnes of natural rutile was also produced. Only one-eighth of the titanium mineral produced is used in the state for the manufacture of titanium dioxide pigment, the majority is exported as raw materials for overseas pigment plants.

At present, the lower grades of ilmenite (52 to 57 per cent titanium dioxide) are exported without conversion to the rutile by West Australian titanium mineral producers to the sulfate-based and electric arc slagging plants.

bullet Tiwest Joint Venture (130 000 tpa).
bullet Note Cable Sands, operating at Jangardup near Bunbury sells its ilmenite to West Australian synthetic rutile producers.


The Becher process reduces the iron oxide contained in the ilmenite to metallic iron and then re-oxidises it to iron oxide and in the process, separates out the titanium dioxide as synthetic rutile of about 91 to 93 per cent purity. The process involves a high temperature kiln to heat the ilmenite with coal and sulfur. After screening, the slurry of reduced ilmenite (mixture of iron and titanium dioxide) in water is oxidised with air which can be separated in settling ponds. The low value iron oxide (that represented at least 40 per cent of the ilmenite) is returned to the mine site as waste and land-filled.

In October 1997, the then Westralian Sands announced a A$18.5m investment in a pig iron plant which at stage 2 commissioned in year 2000, would generate 100 000 tpa of pig iron worth US$150 per tonne. (Sales of A$17 million with EBIT of A$2.8 million). The process involves compressing the iron oxide into briquettes for smelting into pig iron.

The resultant synthetic rutile is acid washed to remove other metal oxides and then dried for sale for conversion to the pigment..

Coal is used as a reductant in the production of ilmenite. Western Australia produces around 6 million tonnes per year of which 75 per cent is used by three power stations with the remainder was consumed by alumina, nickel, mineral sands and cement industries. The coal is supplied by Collie which is non-coking and has low ash and sulfur. Sub-bituminous, with a specific energy of only 20GJ/tonne, it ranks between the brown coal of Victoria and the black coals of Queensland and New South Wales. With a high moisture content and propensity for autoignition, it is has limited export potential. However its medium volatility is valuable when used in the production of synthetic rutile.

About 320 kWatt hours of electricity is required to produce one tonne of synthetic rutile. At a nominal industry cost of A$0.06 per kWatt hour, it represents about 4 per cent of the value of the synthetic rutile produced. bulletElectricity in Australia has been identified as among the cheapest in the world. Nevertheless, its cost in Western Australia is claimed to preclude a smelter to produce iron billet instead of the current practice of returning the iron oxide by-product of the Becher process as waste back to the minesite. The world's lower cost electricity producing areas are the hydroelectric power generating areas of Norway and the cheap coal-fired power plants of South Africa.

Iluka Resources said (August 1999) it would end dredge mining operations at Eneabba, WA by the end of 1999 when the Eneabba West orebody was mined-out, but would continue production from a single dry mine for one year, and open a second dry mine late year 2000 on the Brandy Flat/Depot Hill deposit; rutile and zircon production would be less compared to the mid 1990s, about 75 kt and 150-180 kt/year respectively. The company reported a profit of $28.7 mill for the half year, based on sales of $383 mill, and flagged future savings from the closure of mines at South Capel (and Eneabba), and further rationalisation of its synthetic rutile production by focusing on the more productive plants North Capel and Narngulu.

Iluka Resources  is embarking on a 3-pronged strategy – the company will spend $30 mill at Eneabba, WA to convert all operations to dry mining; spend $100 mill in the US to double production at its Virginia and Florida operations to; and spend $80 mill on developing a green fields mine in the newly-emerging Murray Basin province, to be operational by about 2005. At 220 000 tpa it would represent 27 per cent of world production of ilmenite at 800 000 tpa.(to be confirmed!!!!!)

Some plants overseas convert the ilmenite directly with chlorine and dispose the resulting ferric chloride in deepfill sites.

In cheap electricity regions (such as Canada, South Africa or Norway) electric furnaces are used to produce a titanium dioxide rich slag and the iron, instead of being returned to the mine as as waste as in the Becher process, is sold as pig iron. The electric furnace route is very competitive and is seen as depressing synthetic rutile prices.

Technology by Auspac

Ticor holds all three technologies for producing TiO2 planning to use the Auspac technology in India (slag technology in South Africa; Becher in Western Australia).

WMC with South African partner Southern Mining Corporation is evaluating Mozambique.

Synthetic rutile prices have been declining as the swing from sulfate to chloride plants has been slower than predicted and through competition from South Africa's low cost chloride-grade rutile slag producers. This pressure is being reflected in declining prices for ilmenite and synthetic rutile.

At present overseas pigment plants add about $1.6 billion, or about three times the value currently added in Western Australia to the state's titanium minerals. It is worth noting also that while Australia produces around 26 per cent of world production of titanium minerals, it produces just 4 per cent of world production of titanium dioxide pigment!

A major influence on natural rutile is the prospect of the currently closed Sierra Leone mine that has been the world's largest.

Western Australia


The Beenup mineral sands deposit (17 km north east of Augusta in the south west of Western Australia contains some 80 million tonnes of ilmenite. The ilmenite contains only about 50 per cent titanium dioxide, compared with up to about 62 per cent as mined elsewhere in the State.

The deposit was being developed by BHP Minerals as a joint venture with Tinfos Titan Iron of Norway. Some 600 000 tpa of ilmenite (and 20 000 tpa of zircon) will be exported (about one-half to the joint venture for smelting to chloride-grade rutile and the balance sold to sulfate plants).

The producers claimed the lower grades of ilmenite could not be economically converted to synthetic rutile in the current world status of cheap slagged ilmenite (with zero nucleide content).

The nucleide issue is that the mineral sands contain monazite which typically contains 6 per cent of the radioactive element thorium (and some uranium. In 1990, some 13 000 tonnes of monazite were produced but fell to zero due to competition from nucleide free sources such as China. There is interest in processing monazite by Rhone-Poulenc at Pinjarra.
Technical problems (inadequate settling that requires a tailings dam and highly abrasive orebody promoting premature equipment failure) held production to around 40 per cent of capacity. In March 1999, BHP announced it was closing the operations and would commence a soil remediation program. Analysts have speculated that it may eventually reopen. BHP is also selling its joint venture in Mozambique and its assets near  Newcastle, NSW. 

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