Julia Creek Vanadium and Oil Shale Deposit
Coxhell and Barry Fehlberg
Fimiston Mining NL
Julia Creek Vanadium Project is centred 15 km east of the
township of Julia Creek in north-west Queensland, and 165 km
east of the mining province of Mt Isa-Cloncurry, on the Julia
Creek 1:250,000 mapsheet (SF1403; Figure 1).
1. Location of the
Julia Creek project area.
project lies within St Elmo Pastoral Station and EPM
12862-12864, which covers areas previously explored for oil
shale by CSR Limited between 1968-1988, Placer Exploration
between 1988-1991, and CRA between 1991-1994.
deposit is 100% owned by Fimiston Mining NL. Fimiston acquired
the project in October 1998 after research suggested the
opportunity to locate and develop a large oxide vanadium project
in the upper oxide zone where the oil shale has been leached of
the oil. Drilling and assaying work completed since then has
established one of the world’s largest vanadium resources.
Leaching has resulted in the enrichment of vanadium
mineralisation in the top 15m, and improved mining and
beneficiation characteristics of the orebody.
detailed program of metallurgical testing has established a
method for the beneficiation, leaching and purification of
vanadium products from the oxidised oil shale. Current work is
being directed at reducing reagent consumption in an effort to
lower the projected operating and capital costs of the project.
fresh oil shale below 15 m vertical depth contains in excess of
three billion barrels of oil, located between 20 and 40 m
vertical depth over an area of 600 km2. With the rise
in the oil price the potential for the joint extraction of both
the vanadium and the oil within the fresh oil shale offers scope
to significantly increase the value of the project.
Exploration and Development History
centred on Julia Creek over the last thirty years has been
extensive and widespread, with a significant proportion of the
work focused on the search for, and development of, the oil
shale within the unoxidised kerogen-rich oil shale and limestone
tenements were originally pegged by Aquitane in 1968 in the
general area of Julia Creek. The initial exploration target was
sedimentary uranium in the Cretaceous Toolebuc Formation, but
the program was unsuccessful.
exploration focus shifted to the oil and vanadium within the
Toolebuc Formation and a joint venture was formed with The Oil
Shale Corporation (TOSCO).
Through 1969 the TOSCO – Aquitane J.V drilled 55 holes
on roughly a six km grid east and west from Julia Creek.
This work outlined a remarkably consistent mineralised
horizon and preliminary mining and processing studies for a
proposed oil shale and vanadium project were undertaken
1970 and 1973 research was undertaken into vanadium extraction
and marketing with a number of potential metallurgical options
being tested in laboratory work in the USA.
rise in the oil price in 1973 prompted work directed at
investigating the feasibility of oil extraction from the fresh
rock. Extensive drilling was completed throughout the area with
a large oil shale deposit of fairly uniform grade (65-75 litres
per tonne) located along the west flank of the St Elmo Structure
adjacent to the St Elmo Homestead.
number of different sized projects were reviewed and a range of
processing and refining options were considered.
1979 a significant rise in the oil price prompted renewed
enthusiasm for the development of a large-scale oil shale
project at Julia Creek. In
excess of 250 exploration holes were drilled on the western
flank of the St Elmo Structure in the vicinity of St Elmo
Homestead and resource estimation completed based on the
1982 the detailed drilling defined an oil shale resource
proposed to be mined by shallow open cut means. The unoxidised
oil shale resource of 1,798 Mt was estimated to average 63.5
litres per tonne of oil and 0.35% V2O5 per
tonne of ore (Whitcher, 1992).
test work and pilot plant studies to investigate oil shale
extraction technologies were instigated following advances in
retorting technologies. A significant amount of research was
completed by CSIRO in association with CSR Ltd.
1982, progressive expenditure on the Julia Creek project had
reached $15 million and it was concluded that the required
selling price for oil was US$42/barrel for the project to be
economically viable (Herbert, 1980). Between 1983 and 1988,
CSR's activities continued to advance technological research
into aspects of oil shale processing before they withdrew from
the oil shale project in 1988.
Placer acquired the ground in 1988 and completed a review
of the data. They withdrew in 1991.
acquired the tenements in 1991 and focused attention on the
extraction of oil from the oil shale.
They drilled a number of holes and completed some
metallurgical work in their in-house laboratory. An extensive
review of previous work was completed and data compilation was
carried out. CRA withdrew from the project in 1994 after
concluding that the production of oil from the Julia Creek
deposit was uneconomic at the oil price of the day.
Wayne Jones applied for new mineral tenements in July 1996 and
Fimiston entered into an agreement to acquire the Julia Creek
tenements from Jones in October 1998.
Julia Creek oil and vanadium rich shale is located within marine
sediments of the Early Cretaceous Toolebuc Formation, a
stratigraphic unit that occurs throughout the Eromanga Basin in
Eromanga Basin is a sub basin of the Great Artesian Basin and
consists of a number of thick sequences of non-marine and marine
sedimentary units. The
Toolebuc is part of the Rolling Downs Group of the Eromanga
Basin that covers a wide but relatively shallow structural
depression in eastern Australia, covering 1.5 million km2.
The basin was developed as a major downwarp on a basement
of Proterozoic to Palaeozoic metamorphic and igneous rocks
during the Jurassic to Cretaceous.
and Senior (1976) have proposed an evolutionary history of the
basin. Sedimentation in the Eromanga commenced in the early
Jurassic period, with the deposition of fluvial sandstones of
the Hutton Formation as a consequence of downwarping of the
basement. These non-marine Jurassic sandstones are the main
aquifers of the Great Artesian basin.
fluviatile, lacustrine, and possibly deltaic sedimentation,
continued at the close of the Jurassic. A worldwide marine
transgression during the Cretaceous period (Schlanger and
Jenkyns, 1986) was marked in the Eromanga Basin by the
deposition of shallow marine and paralic sediments, including
the Toolebuc Formation. Following final withdrawal of the sea,
lithic sediments were deposited above the Toolebuc Formation.
The stratigraphy of the Eromanga Basin is described in
detail by Exon and Senior (1976).
Toolebuc Formation is a flat lying early Cretaceous (Albian ~
100 My) sediment that consists predominantly of black
carbonaceous and bituminous shale and minor siltstone, with
limestone lenses and coquinites (mixed limestone and clays). It
is composed of two distinct units representing two different
facies: an upper coarse limestone-rich-clay-oil shale unit
(coquina) and a lower fine grained carbonate-clay-oil shale
Toolebuc Formation outcrops only at the margins of the Eromanga
and Carpentaria basins. At
Julia Creek it is draped over an original basement high and has
been structurally brought to the surface.
Where the unit outcrops it forms low, rubbly, subtle
topographic highs which have been the source of road building
materials in many areas.
buried basement ridge, the St Elmo Structure, trends in a
north-north-west direction from the Julia Creek Project area.
Outcropping Toolebuc Formation is found over a wide area
elongated in a north-north-west orientation in this area.
limestone within the Toolebuc Formation has an abundant fossil
assemblage which has been extensively studied. Two main faunal
assemblages have been recognised, corresponding to the upper
coquina facies (shelly limestone and clay) and a lower fine
grained carbonate shale facies.
In the vicinity of St Elmo Station outcrops of both the upper coquina and lower oil shale of the Toolebuc Formation are strongly oxidised to approximately 15 m deep (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Plan showing the outcropping area of the Toolebuc formation, and a cross section through the ore body showing the depth of weathering and the units making up the ore body.
upper coquina averages 5 to 6 m thick, and is composed of
alternate layers of coarse shelly limestone and oxidised fine
grained material identical to the lower shale unit.
The limestone layers within the coquina comprise single
and multiple laminae of crystalline calcite derived dominantly
from shells of the fossil bivalves Inoceramus and Aucellina.
Alternate layered individual limestone and clay horizons
within the coquina are from 1 to 10cm thick. Bands of goethite
(1-2 cm thick), derived from oxidised pyrite rich sediments
within the Toolebuc, comprise approximately 5% of the rock mass.
Average grain size of the coquina ranges from 200 mm plates of
calcite, to fine clays and coccoliths between 0.5-10 microns.
The clay rich layers within the coquina increase in
abundance and thickness towards the base, reflecting alternating
and changing environmental conditions.
lower unit is the main oil shale horizon which, in the fresh
rock, contains the majority of the oil. This fine grained oil
shale averages 7 m thick and is principally composed of calcite,
clays and kerogen. Pyritic sediments (1-2 cm thick) comprise
approximately 5% of the rock mass. Oil grade within the fresh
rock varies from 55 to 100 litres per tonne and averages between
65 and 75 litres per tonne.
The oil is contained within the kerogen, which comprises
approximately 18wt% of the fresh oil shale. The composition of
the kerogen is about 75% carbon, 8% hydrogen, 5% sulphur, 2%
nitrogen and 10% oxygen (Tolmie, 1987).
organic matter in the fresh shale is predominantly lamellar and
referred to by Hutton et al (1980) as ‘lamosite’ (lamellar
oil shale). The organic compounds are described as Alginite B in
order to distinguish them from the more generally recognised
Alginite A, in which clear evidence of algal morphology can be
observed. Alginite B comprises elongate anastomosing films
derived from benthonic algae that are referable to the
Cyanophyceae genera of blue-green algae (Ozimic, 1986).
High magnification scanning electron microscopy reveals the oil shale contains abundant micro fossils, dominated by small planktonic foraminifera and coccoliths (algal plates) believed to be derived from Cyanophta / blue- green algae. Average grain size of the lower oil shale calcareous nanofossils and clays are less than 5 to7 microns (Figure 3).
electron microscope images of the Toolebuc shale, showing: (a) a
foram test rimmed by crystals (probably calcite) and hosted in a
matrix of coccoliths and clays, and (b) & (c) the morphology
and size of the coccoliths (Camuti, 1999).
Width of images: a: 50 microns,
b: 14.5 microns, c:
blue-green algae are interpreted to have formed extensive algal
mats on the sea floor. The preservation of dead algal matter can
be related to an oxidising-reducing boundary probably situated
immediately below the base of the living algal mat layer and
keeping pace with its upward growth. The clays and kerogen are
derived from planktonic algae and blue-green benthonic algae
(Glikson and Taylor, 1986) with the calcite representing the
inorganic component of the organisms.
episode of clear water calcareous sedimentation represented by
the Toolebuc Formation ended when muddy conditions returned,
preventing further growth of the benthonic fauna and leading to
widespread deposition of the argillaceous sediments of the
Allaru Mudstone (Ramsden, 1983).
history of the basin has involved weathering, erosion and some
tilting. Narrow north-west trending subvertical faults have been
observed in the road quarries east of Julia Creek and are
parallel to the broad trend of the Toolebuc outcrop and St Elmo
structure. Deep weathering during the Tertiary resulted in
oxidation to greater than 30 m locally, and averaging 15 m
in the vicinity of Julia Creek.
situ moisture content of the Julia Creek oil shale is estimated
to be about 6 %.
Mineralogy of the Toolebuc Formation
work completed by Fimiston and others has established that the
oil shale is principally composed of calcite, kerogen, quartz,
kaolinite, smectite and pyrite. Minor minerals identified
include mixed layered clays and gypsum. Trace minerals
identified include sphalerite, chalcopyrite and galena.
the oxide zone the kerogen and pyrite are completely oxidised.
The kerogen appears to break down into amorphous oxide
wad, while the pyrite forms goethite and hematite.
open pits near Julia Creek, which have been the source of road
building material, tyayamunite, a calcium-uranium-vanadium oxide
mineral has been found, in a rare occurrence.
Toolebuc is anomalous in a wide range of elements including
copper, zinc, nickel and molybdenum, and typical analyses of the
oxidised oil shale and soft oxide coquina are presented in Table
analyses of the oxidised Coquina and Oil Shale.
occurrence of vanadium in both weathered and fresh oil shale
samples has been investigated in a number of past studies. Norrish and Patterson (1976) concluded that
the vanadium in oil shale at Julia Creek is associated with
mixed layered clays and contains approximately 60% of the
vanadium present in the fresh oil shale. The other 40% occurs
within silicates, pyrite and organic compounds.
layer clays isolated from weathered and unweathered oil shale
contain 5-10% V2O5;
vanadium substitutes in the octahedral positions of the
clay structures to give an idealised formula of K(Al,V,Mg)4
levels of organically bound vanadium have been found at Julia
Creek with one sample of fresh oil shale containing about half
its vanadium chemically bound within the kerogen in the form of
vanadyl porphyrins (Riley and Saxby, 1982). The
remainder of the vanadium is found either within the mixed
layered clays (illite-smectite), or associated with pyrite in
the fresh material and goethite within the oxidised material.
and Saxby (1982) investigated the different forms of vanadium
based on the quantities that could be extracted by different
acids. They found that vanadium occurred in a variety of forms
species soluble in hydrochloric acid, (probably hydrated oxides and vandates adsorbed on clays or precipitated in the limestone);
species soluble in hydrofluoric acid (probably vanadium silicates within clays or micas); and
processes have destroyed the vanadyl porphyrin structures in the
vanadium from the organic matter (Riley and Saxby, 1982). This
weathering is thought to result in the transfer of hydrated
oxides of vanadium into the clay structures.
continuous pyritic bands present within the Toolebuc Formation
have been oxidised during weathering resulting in higher grade
goethite bands which, in the coquina, can contain grades of up
to 0.5% V2O5.
It is suggested that the oxidation of pyrite in the
Toolebuc created an acidic environment that enhanced the release
of vanadium from the various mineral species (particularly the
kerogen and pyritic zones), resulting in some mobilisation and
enrichment of grades associated with the oxide zones.
associations of vanadium within the soft oxide coquina and the
underlying oxidised oil shale have been examined in SEM studies
commissioned by Fimiston. The vanadium was found to be
associated with hydrated iron or iron/titanium oxides and mixed
clays. The grade of the vanadium in the particles of hydrated
iron oxides is about three times higher than that in the clays.
However, the volume proportion of the clay-like phase is
considerably higher (Burger et al., 1999).
was also found in another mineral phase – wad. Wad is an
amorphous mixture of various oxides, mainly of manganese,
cobalt, iron and copper, with 10 to 20% water. The vanadium
content in wad is approximately equivalent to that in hydrated
Depositional Environment and Mechanism of Vanadium Concentration
vanadium within the Toolebuc Formation is interpreted to have
been concentrated by marine organisms, fixing the vanadium from
seawater over a long period of time in an anaerobic environment.
The vanadium occurs as both organic and inorganic forms
suggesting a unique combination of physical and chemical
conditions was necessary for the accumulation of the various
vanadium mineral species.
fossil assemblage and mineralogy of the two main facies of the
Toolebuc Formation provide important clues to the depositional
environment and possible mechanism for the fixing of the
difference between the upper coquina and lower fine grained oil
shale is related to the amount of oxygen present during
deposition, and the possible depth of formation. The lower fine
grained oil shale represents a reducing environment, while the
upper laminated coquina represents fluctuating and progressively
increased levels of oxygen in the sea suitable for the
establishment of specialised low oxygen tolerant large sized
benthonic shelly fauna (Ozimic, 1986).
Possible fluctuation in the sea level (and/or in the
physio-chemical conditions at the sea floor) sometimes favoured
oil shale accumulation, but increasingly favoured formation of
the coquina (Ramsden, 1986).
close spaced and alternating sequence of the upper coquina
shelly layers and the coquina and fine grained oil shale
suggests periodic and cyclic changes to the anaerobic-aerobic
(1986) has extensively studied the Toolebuc Formation and has
proposed a quiet anaerobic deep water environment of deposition
for the fine grained oil shale. The fine grained laminated
nature of the oil shale suggests deposition under moderately
deep conditions below the depth at which wave action is capable
of stirring up the ine sediment. Correlation with modern oceans
suggest a depth of approximately 200 m (Ramsden, 1980).
analogy has been made between the white chalks characteristic of
the Cretaceous in western Europe and North America, and the
Toolebuc Formation, in that both consist of algal plates
(coccoliths) and foraminifera.
However, unlike the oxidising conditions that prevailed
during the formation of the white chalk, the conditions at Julia
Creek (and elsewhere within the Eromanga basin) were anoxic.
As a consequence, not only was there an accumulation of
very fine algal plates, but much of the associated organic
matter was also preserved.
abundance of planktonic foraminifera and coccolith remains in
the oil shales suggests a productive oxygenated upper water
layer in the environment of deposition (Glikson and Taylor,
presence of pyrite, both as framboidal and massive bands
throughout the organic calcareous complex, and within the
foraminifera shells, indicates anoxic conditions at the
water-sediment interface and possibly above it (Sherwood and
Cook, 1986). The
anaerobic environment would have enhanced growth of the
cyanobacterial community as well as preservation of the organic
matter following death of the organisms (Sherwood and Cook,
conditions under anoxic water make some toxic metals, for
example lead, available for chelation with organic matter
(Damison and Moore, 1986). Sediments deposited under anoxic
marine waters contain abnormally high concentrations of uranium,
copper, molybdenum, nickel, phosphorous and sulphur, which tend
to correlate with organic carbon concentration (Schlanger and
uranium within the Toolebuc was interpreted by Ozimic to have
probably been transported into the depositional area in a
soluble hexavalent state by run-off waters from adjacent land
masses, and reduced at the sea floor by organic matter to the
insoluble tetravalent precipitate. A similar mechanism for the
transport and reduction of vanadium is proposed.
close association between calcite and organic compounds has been
observed at Julia Creek during studies of the organic matter by
Sherwood and Cook (1986). Calcareous outlines or replicas of
microorganisms closely resembling cyanobacteria of Oscillatoria
were observed. It was interpreted that calcite precipitation
occurred upon the death of organisms as a result of excretion of
amino acids by decomposing cyanobacteria. Bacterial
decomposition of amino acids under anaerobic conditions in
sediments can lead to an accumulation of ammonia, raising the
pH, and bringing about the precipitation of calcium carbonate
(Glikson and Taylor, 1986). The abundance of pyrite also points
to anaerobic conditions and sulphate reduction processes.
close association between vanadium mineralisation and organic
and inorganic mineral species suggests the fixing of the
vanadium during these periodic pH and chemical changes at the
environment of deposition envisaged for the formation and
preservation of the Toolebuc Formation was a “positive water
balance basin” (Damison and Moore, 1980) in which saline water
entered from the north and circulated, while fresh water from
the hinterland flowed northwards out of the region. The sea was
most likely stratified with a permanent halocline below a layer
of fresh water.
conditions which favoured oil-shale deposition within the
Toolebuc Formation were apparently terminated during the
Cretaceous with the return of normal marine conditions. This was
probably the result of an increase in saltwater inflow arising
from a rising sea level and possible variations in conditions
limiting the productivity in the euphotic zone (Ozimic, 1992).
Julia Creek oil shale deposit covers a vast area of the Eromanga
Basin and, at a low cut off grade (+20 litres/tonne), would
comprise a huge resource. The prospective oil shale horizon has
been estimated to cover in excess of 500,000 square km (Exon and
Senior, 1976) with an average thickness of 5-15 m.
On this basis, and assuming an average thickness of 7 m
and an average grade of 60 litres/tonne, the formation contains
2400 billion barrels of oil. A large proportion of this is
covered by 100 to 1000 m of younger sediments.
is in the vicinity of Julia Creek that the prospective horizon
outcrops, and substantial resources are present near the surface
(<40 m vertical depth) and mineable from an open pit mining
operation with an acceptable strip ratio.
The top 15 m has been weathered and the kerogen-oil
content of the oil shale is depleted but, below the base of
oxidation, the near surface oil shale deposit grades up to 90
litres per tonne and averages about 65-75 litres per tonne.
Ltd undertook detailed studies into the viability of the project
from the late seventies until 1988. Based on 1-2 km spaced drill
holes they calculated an in situ resource of 4,252 million
tonnes grading 62.8 litres per tonne (40 litre/tonne cut off)
for 1.7 billion barrels of oil.
A mining study based on the in situ resource and
following additional drilling estimated total tonnage in three
open pits at 1798 Mt at an average grade of 74 litres/tonne in
the proposed southern pit, 67 litres/tonne in the central pit,
63 litres/tonne in the northern pit. An average strip ratio of
1:3.5 was estimated.
the total Toolebuc Formation very large quantities of vanadium
are present, with an estimated total global resource in excess
of ten billion tonnes of vanadium. Work by Fimiston on the vanadium
mineralisation within the Toolebuc Formation, near St Elmo
Station, has indicated large tonnages of near surface oxidised
vanadium mineralisation are located within both the upper
coquina and lower oil shale. Similar vanadium contents have also
been recorded in the fresh rock. Oxide vanadium resources within
the Julia Creek Project area have been estimated at 340 Mt at
estimated vanadium resource is composed of two principal ore
types: the upper soft oxide coquina and the lower fine grained
oil shale. The upper soft oxide coquina totals 160 mt @ 0.25% V2O5,
and the lower fine grained oil shale totals 180 mt @ 0.40% V2O5.
work has focussed on the extraction of the vanadium from the
upper portion of the formation, within 15 m of the surface. Near
surface, the rocks are strongly weathered with oxidation
enriching the vanadium values and, more importantly, rendering
the upper soft oxide coquina friable and easy to mine and
testwork has shown that the coquina ore averaging 0.25% V2O5
can be readily and efficiently beneficiated to a 1.4% V2O5
concentrate via wet scrubbing, trommelling and cycloning. Coarse
shelly limestone, containing negligible vanadium and comprising
up to 85% of the total mass, is removed by this process leaving
a fine grained clay and iron oxide product (<10 microns)
containing 85-90 % of the original vanadium.
to the very fine grained nature of the fine calcareous
microfossils in the underlying oil shale this material cannot be
beneficiated using conventional cyclone technology. The
microfossils, which contain negligible vanadium, cannot be
readily separated from the fine clays and iron oxides.
large number of leach tests at a range of temperatures and
pressures have been completed on the 1.4% beneficiated coquina
concentrate to determine an optimum method for the leaching of
the clays and iron oxides. This testwork has shown that both alkaline
and acid leaching can be used to solubilise the vanadium from
the clays and iron oxides within the concentrate. Acid is more
effective than alkali leach methods at lower temperatures,
however the excessive acid consumption due to the high levels of
calcite renders the process uneconomic.
Results from alkaline leaching, using a combination of
sodium carbonate and caustic soda at 250 °C,
have been promising, with recoveries of greater than 75%
main hurdle to development is the high consumption of the
principal reagent, sodium carbonate. Stoichiometrically, the
vanadium in the concentrate requires only one tenth of the
sodium carbonate that is being consumed, however the formation
of a sodium rich zeolite (analcime) in the autoclave is
consuming any free sodium. This results in excessive reagent
consumption. Current metallurgical activities are being directed
at trying to prevent the formation of the analcime, and
investigating the possible joint extraction of oil and vanadium
from the fresh rock.
the basis of the significant potential of the Julia Creek
deposit further work is required to assess its viability. The
huge scale of the project and the potential for metallurgical
breakthroughs that could alter the project parameters and
economics suggest that further work is clearly justified.
active work program to re-examine the various options for the
development of a large scale oil shale deposit project at Julia
Creek is now warranted. In particular, the suitability of new
advances in process technology (such as that being used at
Stuart Oil shale deposit) should be assessed in detail.
Operating costs at Stuart are forecast at under $US10/barrel and
if achievable will lead to a long term and profitable mining
operating costs may be achievable at Julia Creek and, coupled
with income from vanadium which could be produced as a
byproduct, project economics would be highly attractive.
authors would like to thank Fimiston Mining N.L for permission
to publish this paper.
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Received: March 2000
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Journal Paper 2000-11, May 2000
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