Australian nickel miner Minara Resources Ltd will submit a joint bid with a Chinese firm on Wednesday for BHP Billiton's Ravensthorpe nickel operation, a source familiar with the bid told Reuters.
The offer for the idled facility in west Australia will be well below $500 million, the source said, the bottom end of a range of values which have been put on the mining and processing operation by industry analysts.
The bid will be submitted later today (Wednesday), but will be nowhere near $500 million, said the source, declining to be identified because the bid process was confidential.
A Minara spokesman declined to comment.
A BHP Billiton spokeswoman said only that it was pursuing a range of options for Ravensthorpe, including a sale.
At least half a dozen groups have looked at Ravensthorpe since it closed in January, after a steep slide in the nickel price. The price has since regained some ground, but BHP Billiton still does not regard this as one of their core growth assets.
Other sources have told Reuters that First Quantum Minerals of Canada and Metallurgical Corp of China (MCC) are also interested in Ravensthorpe.
Minara, partly owned by commodities trader Glencore, and Ravensthorpe employ similar high-pressure technology to glean nickel from dry laterite ores found in Western Australia.
Nickel, used mainly for stainless steel, is a long way off its 2007 peaks near $52,000 a tonne and sells for about $17,000 a tonne, up from $11,000 when Ravensthorpe closed.
Chinese state-funded MCC is developing a nickel mine in neighboring Papua New Guinea at a cost of $1.7 billion, saying it has ready buyers waiting in China.
Ravensthorpe marked a costly foray by BHP Billiton into specialty nickel mining. It closed the $2 billion project nine months after commissioning it, shedding more than 1,000 jobs.
Some banking sources with knowledge of the sale process have said Ravensthorpe could be worth $850 million-$1 billion, despite others putting the figure at no more than $500 million.
BHP Billiton recently sold another nickel refinery in eastern Australia which was designed to accept processed ore from Ravensthorpe.
Ravensthorpe was built to yield up to 50,000 tonnes of nickel metal annually, but was producing only a small fraction of that when it was closed.
(Editing by Mark Bendeich)