“International relations are key in the production of strategic metals”
Head of IMIDRO’s Training, Research, and Technology:

“International relations are key in the production of strategic metals”

Strategic metals are an underdeveloped sector of Iran’s mining industries. They include nickel, cadmium, cobalt, lithium, rare-earth elements, titanium, antimony, etc. Reserves of these metals likely exist in Iran, with good results for titanium and antimony. To analyze the exploitation and production of strategic metals in this Insider Talk, we have talked to Gholamreza Mollataheri, head of IMIDRO’s Training, Research, and Technology department. Strategic metals have not been developed in Iran because they are little-known and are not used commonly, Mollataheri believes. But reserves and technologies of common metals such as copper, iron, lead, and zinc are well-known. “Connecting industries with universities, especially those with good international relations, can be effective in the exploitation and production of strategic metals,” says Mollataheri.

How do strategic metals matter in the industry? Where does Iran stand in terms of strategic metals?

Iran is now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which means some metals and minerals are used in high-tech industries. When a country truly wants to be industrialized, it will naturally need strategic metals and elements, especially if it is a producer. Iran needs planning and management for new horizons in visions of four to five years.

Iran has a long history in the production of copper and steel, and there are currently no serious issues in their technology and exploitation. But not enough action has been taken about strategic metals and minerals, which have applications in advanced industries. These sectors definitely need planning and development.

Why is Iranian Mines and Mining Industries Development and Renovation Organization (IMIDRO) venturing into this sector?

This is part of IMIDRO’s legal obligation. The private sector does not want to get involved in strategic metals, because it is a new area. IMIDRO is seeking to gain the technical knowledge required and develop the exploration of these metals. After finding economical reserves and gaining the knowledge necessary to exploit them, IMIDRO will share its information with the private sector. In other words, IMIDRO lays the groundwork for the exploitation of strategic metals.

Strategic metals include nickel, cadmium, cobalt, lithium, rare-earth elements, titanium, antimony, tungsten, vanadium, etc. Exploring and exploiting them requires a high level of technology and knowledge. IMIDRO has been into this topic recently and is putting more focus on it.

Why has there not been any real effort to explore and exploit these metals on a commercial scale, given that Iran has rather good potentials there?

This is mainly due to a lack of technical knowledge for exploitation, as is the case for many metals. But things are more difficult now that they used to be; foreign relations are restricted as a result of sanctions, which makes it more challenging to gain technical knowledge. I should mention, however, that IMIDRO and Iran Minerals Production and Supply Company (IMPASCO) have been exploring and exploiting antimony in Sistan and Baluchestan as well as titanium in Kahnooj. We had tender offers and chose contractors for these projects. Moreover, IMIDRO has exploration projects for other metals and minerals.

Rich reserves are a must for the production of strategic metals. Iran has vanadium reserves, but the economy and grade must first be analyzed with feasibility studies. Rare-earth elements have a similar situation. Caution should be exercised in exploiting and producing these metals, because they are different from common metals such as iron, copper, lead, or zinc. There is no hesitation regarding investments in common metals; their exploitation and production technologies are known and established. Government and private sectors can easily and assuredly invest in these metals. But there are uncertainties surrounding strategic metals; there is not enough information on the quality and quantity of these minerals, and their reserves must be economically justifiable. For instance, vanadium, gold, and rare-earth minerals might be found and reported in many mines and reserves, but their exploitation requires research and cutting-edge technology. Thus, this is a new area that takes a while to become productive. Nonetheless, IMPASCO has started to exploit antimony and the titanium project in Kahnooj is making good progress. There are some exploitation projects for nickel and cadmium and private companies are working on them. Other metals will be exploited depending on their importance, reserves, knowledge requirements, etc.

What are IMIDRO’s plans for the production and exploitation of strategic metals?

The first step in metal production is exploration; it then enters the experimental phase, followed by pilot production. If all these stages are successfully passed, commercial production starts. The whole process takes at least five years. Strategic metals are in different phases in Iran. As already mentioned, titanium exploration is over in Kahnooj and the project has passed the experimental and pilot production phases into commercial production; we are even considering exploiting vanadium from the project. Moreover, the project for rare-earth metals is transitioning from the experimental phase to pilot production. Antimony is also going into commercial production.

Nickel and cadmium are past the experimental and pilot phases and are going through feasibility studies, while lithium is in the exploration stage.

What are your plans for the relationship between the industry and universities, given the recent agreement signed between IMIDRO and Amirkabir University?

Being in touch with universities is one of IMIDRO’s approaches. IMIDRO is doing its best and there are regulations that aim at strengthening the relationship between universities and industries. IMIDRO has had other agreements with the University of Tehran and Sharif University of Technology, some of which led to contracts and research projects. But there wasn’t a strong relationship with Amirkabir University; it is a leading university in the mining industry. There are great professors, whose expertise and experience can be used particularly in exploitation. Moreover, it has good relations with top international universities. IMIDRO is planning to use the capacities of Amirkabir University and utilize its international methods. The university has a Forum for the Convergence of International Approaches with offices overseas that enable it to connect to international universities in order to use their capacities.

By the agreement mentioned above, IMIDRO is now a member of Amirkabir’s Council for Strategic Civil and Mining Research Center. There are also plans for joint research projects that can include high-tech industries.

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