ium and rare earth minerals from local sand could turn the Henry County area into one of the main US suppliers for titanium.
But rather than using invasive mining techniques, harsh chemicals and a high carbon footprint, a local company intends to use mostly water and gravity to make it happen, and promises to leave the land they way they found it.
IperionX hopes to be a major producer of both materials, each of which are mostly imported to the United States now.
With offices in Camden, the company is at work on what it calls Project Titan, a development stage that will hopefully see an extraction facility begin construction in this area.
On Wednesday, company officials, including CEO and co-founder Anastasios “Taso” Arima, Vice President of Geology and Land Jonathon Lord, and Chief Operating Officer Scott Sparks gave a tour of the demonstration and testing facility in Henry County which they hope will grow into a full-scale facility.
Prior to founding IperionX, Arima was the co-founder and CEO of Piedmont Lithium. Based in North Carolina, that company makes battery-grade lithium hydroxide and other chemicals needed for electric vehicles.
Now he’s turned his attention to producing titanium and the materials that will be used for electric cars.
“Titanium is a very lightweight metal,” Arima said. “So it can be used in a lot of applications including the aerospace and the transportation sector. And then the rare earths go into making the magnets for electric vehicles.”
Currently, those metals are produced overseas, in a process that’s non-sustainable and carbon-heavy. In contrast, the process IperionX will use uses mainly mineral-heavy sand, water and gravity as it’s principle components.
“We import almost a hundred percent of both of those metals into the country today,” Arima said. “So by developing this in West Tennessee, it helps build a key part of the supply chain in the US and helps to build sustainability as well.”
Located on Little Benton Road off Reynoldsburg Road southeast of Paris, the site includes a fine particle separator and two spiral water chutes for testing McNairy sand, the mineral-rich material that is found in several counties in West Tennessee.
“We installed (the particle separator) because the only place that does this type of testing is down in Florida and did not have the capacity to separate the fine particles,” Lord said. “So we would have to ship a 14-ton sample to Australia to get it done. And that was tremendously expensive.”
Once that was done, thanks to Sparks’ expertise, the spiral towers were added so that the site could be used as a demonstration facility.
“The process is so benign, just gravity and water — simple — that we want to be able to show people how easy and sustainable it is,” Lord said.
MILLENNIA YEARS IN THE MAKING
Sixty-five million years ago, during the time frame geologists call the Cretaceous period, the area that is now West Tennessee was the shoreline of a small inland sea.
During the subsequent erosion of the Appalachian Range, quartz and the corrosion-resistant titanium particles were carried by wave action before being deposited on the shore.
When the seas receded, those ancient sands, and their minerals remained.
The presence of McNairy sands in the area has been known for some time.
“Historically, there was some drilling done here in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s — even up through the 1990s,” Arima said. “Back then, the markets weren’t as big as what they are today. And you know, there were no electric vehicles back then, either, so they didn’t need the rare earths. So nobody really ended up developing it.”
In 2020, IperionX began looking at those historical explorations, and began doing drill holes over a period of 18-24 months.
“We've completed over 300 drill holes throughout this part of Tennessee all the way from probably five miles north of us to 80 miles to the south of us on the border with Mississippi,” Arima said. "And we've seen very economic and encouraging concentrations of the rare earths and the titanium in what is called the McNairy sand here."
In fact, the company has identified the largest source of titanium minerals, as well as the rare earths used to manufacture the magnets for electric cars, in the entire United States.
That area includes a spot about five miles north of the Benton County line in Henry County, to a spot about 80 miles south of Henry County near the Mississippi state line.
“You fast-forward to today, you’ve got a very strong market for these minerals,” he said. “Back then, twenty to thirty years ago, we weren’t import dependent. Today, we are import dependent for titanium and the rare earths, and in addition to that, you know, these markets have grown substantially. So now, we feel it’s the time to develop the West Tennessee sands.”
“Jonathon worked tirelessly to put together the property land packages, and the individual negotiations with the land owners out here,” Arima said. “We have about eleven thousand acres of mineral rights out here. We own, or we will own, about fifteen hundred acres of land out here, including this area that we’re standing on today.”
Of the 11,000 acres, about half is in Henry County, with the other half split between Benton and Carroll counties.
A SUSTAINABLE PROCESS
As demonstrated on Wednesday, the process begins by loading McNairy sand into a hopper, then using water to create a slurry. That slurry then moves through the particle separator before being pumped to the top of the spiral water channels. Then gravity takes over, and the liquid slides toward the bottom, separating the materials in the slurry into their individual elements in a process similar to the way miners would pan for gold.
What’s left is a black mineral concentrate, from which IperionX can separate the titanium and rare earth.
When the company operates in the future, it will open an area 10-20 acres wide and extract its sand.
IperionX is finalizing state permits and engineering studies before it begins construction, which it hopes will be in the third or fourth quarter of next year.
That facility will be able to process much more sand, and will include between 100-200 water spirals that will produce a much denser mineral concentrate.
“When we are operating here in the future, we will have an area open — say ten acres or twenty acres at a time,” Arima said. “We will extract out the sand and put it through essentially a larger process than this.”
After the separation process, about 95% of the leftovers would be sand, which would then be returned to the open area in a continuous fashion.
“We will reclaim and rehabilitate behind us,” Arima said. “And we’re working with a range of groups, including the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture, to look at how we can do that even more sustainably.
“Our legacy we want to leave behind is that we leave the land as we found it,” he said. “And we want our farmers, our forestry industry, our land owners to make sure that we deliver on that promise to the community.”
The company plans to work with the Tennessee Valley Authority to get 100% renewable or emissions-free power, making it a carbon-free process.
‘So these operations can live in harmony with the agricultural industry out here, with the timber industry out here, and with people. And they can provide long decades of opportunities for the children and the people out here or the communities in West Tennessee,” Arima said. “Whilst they also supply the US with the needed minerals that we need for our electric vehicle future, for our renewable power future, for our sustainable industries that we’re building you in the country today.”
The company plans to be good neighbors in the community as well, through jobs and education, Arima said. The business will need not only equipment operators and geologists, but environmental scientists, accountants and “the whole gamut of what you need to run a business.”
They’re already planning to reach out to local schools. In fact, Arima and Lord have authored a children’s book on what the company is doing in West Tennessee, which should be released soon.
They hope the book will educate children on what’s happening in the area, and will inspire future geologists.
“So we’ve worked tirelessly,” Arima said. “The team has done an excellent job, we see a future where we are eventually operating here. But we also see a big future for further exploration in the region. And that’s why this plant was built. Because we want to educate the community about how simple this operation can be and how benign it can be on the environment.”
And the way Arima sees it, the company is here for the long haul.
“We intend to be here for decades, if not generations,” he said.