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Domestic tungsten mines gear up for commercial production as market demand soars

The commercialization of domestic tungsten mines is gaining significant momentum as the international market for tungsten continues to surge. The Uljin Ssangjeon Mine, a major mine with an estimated 2.3 million tons of tungsten, is accelerating preparations for commercial production. This includes expanding shafts and establishing processing facilities. Tungsten is a critical material used in semiconductors and high-performance batteries.

The Ssangjeon Mine is owned by ZB Innovation, a mining development company. GBI Innovation holds a 46.88% stake in CBI, a KOSDAQ-listed company, making it an affiliate.

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According to CBI on the 21st, a GBI Innovation official stated, “The Ssangjeon Mine is currently constructing facilities inside and outside the shaft. The tunnel excavation for a 6m x 5m maintenance mine for modern mechanized mining is complete, and the excavation of a 12m x 12m large caliber mine is underway to facilitate wave crushing and equipment installation.” The official added that “advanced drilling for full-scale mining is ongoing, and equipment for sun mining is being manufactured. Facilities for tungsten commercialization are being built.”

If progress continues at this pace, test production could commence as early as July.

Tungsten’s industrial importance

Tungsten is predominantly mined as scheelite and wolframite, and is typically commercialized after primary processing through refining. Tungsten ore is initially processed into ammonium tungsten acid (APT) and ferro-tungsten, and subsequently transformed into tungsten oxide, tungsten powder, and ferro-tungsten for various industrial uses.

Known for its high heat and wear resistance, tungsten has a low thermal expansion rate, making it an ideal raw material for special steels such as cemented carbide and high-speed steel. It is used in defense (cutting tools, ammunition, shells) and increasingly in aerospace industries (3D printers, aviation engines). Additionally, tungsten is vital in electronics and semiconductors due to its excellent electrical conductivity. Tungsten oxide is also a key material for catalysts, high-quality inks, and paints.

Market dynamics and supply concerns

Global demand for tungsten is projected to rise from 11.9 million tons in 2022 to 17.1 million tons by 2030, driven by high-tech product development (semiconductors, communication equipment), renewable energy (secondary batteries, wind turbines, solar panels), and the aerospace sector. However, supply is decreasing. China’s stringent mining and environmental regulations have reduced tungsten concentrate production from 14.5 million tonnes in 2019 to 12.3 million tonnes in 2023. Additionally, the prolonged war in Ukraine has added instability, affecting production from Russia, the world’s third-largest tungsten producer.

According to the Korea Resources Information Service (KOMIS), the price of tungsten has surged, with 1 mtu priced at $350 in mid-May, up from $270 in 2021 and just $160 in 2015. Tungsten is primarily traded as ammonium paratungstate (APT), and 1 Metric ton unit (10kg) contains approximately 7.93kg of tungsten.

Domestic demand and self-sufficiency

Currently, Korea’s tungsten demand is fully met through imports, predominantly from China. Kim Yong-woo, CEO of GB Innovation, highlighted the decline in the average quality of Chinese tungsten raw minerals to 0.18-0.19% due to extensive exploitation over the past 40 years. In contrast, Korea’s tungsten mines, including Ssangjeon, have an average quality of around 0.4%, drawing global interest and suggesting potential tungsten self-sufficiency within the next decade.

The Ssangjeon Mine’s confirmed tungsten concentration is about 23,000 tons, roughly ten times Korea’s annual usage. A 2019 exploration report by Australian-based ITS indicated 3.07 million tonnes of tungsten ore reserves at Ssangjeon, with potential reserves reaching tens of millions of tonnes. The tungsten quality identified was 0.46%, which is 2.5 times the global average. The ore quality denotes the weight of useful ingredients within the mined material.

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