Australia Lithium Production

Australia is currently the biggest producer of Lithium with an output at the level of 14,300 MT (2016 USGS) what equals to 76,119 MT of Lithium Carbonate. It has over 1,600,000 MT of Lithium reserves (world’s fourth largest lithium reserves), and more than 2 million MT of identified Lithium resources.

Western Australia state produces one-third of the world’s lithium supply, through the Greenbushes mine in the South West which is also about to expand dramatically, with more than $2 billion worth of projects in the pipeline.

The Greenbushes Lithium Operation has been producing lithium for over 25 years. The mine is located 250 kilometers (km) south of Perth/Fremantle – a major container shipping port – and 90 km south east of the Port of Bunbury, a major bulk handling port in Western Australia.

The Greenbushes ore body is a highly mineralized zoned pegmatite with a strike length of more than 3 km. Its mineral reserve is very unique grading 50% spodumene. This makes Greenbushes the highest grade lithium mineral resource in the world at 3.9% Li2O mineral reserves and 3.5% Li2O mineral resources versus 1.0 – 2.0% Li2O for other known hard rock deposits.

The Greenbushes mine is part owned by China’s Tianqi Lithium and America’s Albemarle. The mine has seen both boom and bust since starting out as a tin operation in 1888.

“It is the longest continuously running mine in Western Australia and it’s on its third product. It just seems to keep producing new life,” Tianqi Lithium general manager Phil Thick stated.

“Lithium is obviously a game changer for that mine. It’s been significant as a tin and tantalum mine, but lithium value is substantial.”

The joint venture is also building what it claims to be the biggest lithium processing plant in the world in Kwinana south of Perth (with an annual production capacity of 24,000t)

The project will cost $400 million and create 500 construction jobs. Turning lithium concentrate, worth about $1000 a tonne, into lithium hydroxide, which sells for more than 10 times that figure

Talison is the only primary pure lithium supplier not producing from brine operations but rather from rock mining operations.

Since lithium mineral resource is open along strike and at depth there is significant potential to increase lithium mineral reserves and mineral resources extending the life of mine while at the same time increasing production rates.

Talison’s Greenbushes Lithium Operation produces two categories of lithium concentrates: technical-grade lithium concentrates – low iron content for use in the manufacture of glass, ceramics and heat-proof cookware; and high yielding chemical-grade lithium concentrate – used to produce lithium chemicals which form the basis for manufacture lithium-ion batteries for laptop computers, mobile phones and electric cars.

Talison does not produce lithium chemical products, instead the company sells lithium concentrate directly to customers for processing into lithium chemicals.

Talison plans for further expansion by nearly doubling the current run-rate production of 50,000t lithium carbonate equivalent to 100,000t – the next stage of expansion of the chemical-grade plant is being funded by the recent $80 million financing. Long lead time items for the expansion have already been ordered.[1] It currently exports over 400,000 tonnes of lithium-rich spodumene concentrates annually.

Capacity is said to reach 1.34m tonnes of lithium concentrate per annum once a second production facility is completed in 2019.

In January 2017, the WA state had just one mine producing lithium — it now has four and exports have jumped six-fold. “We could go from one [mine] two years ago to eight by this time next year. It really has been quite remarkable what’s going on, – Tim Treadgold stated.”

Mt Marion mine, near Kalgoorlie-Boulder in WA, started construction in September 2015 and recently shipped its first 15,000 tonnes to China to go towards creating batteries. The mine is expected to produce 400,000 tonnes per annum at full capacity. The Mt Marion lithium project is located approximately 40km south west of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia and is jointly owned by Mineral Resources Limited (43.1%), Neometals Ltd 13.8%) and one of China’s largest lithium producer, Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium Co., Ltd (43.1%).

The first shipment of 15,000 tonnes of lithium concentrate was loaded onto the MV Pacific Venus at the port of Kwinana, which set sail for the port of Zhenjiang in China for delivery to Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium.

Ganfeng has commited to take 100% of Mt Marion’s concentrates for the first three years. After that initial period, a percentage of the mine’s concentrates might be converted in Australia into high value Lithium Hydroxide and Lithium Carbonate under plans by Mineral Resources and Neometals to build a downstream processing plant in W.A.

Mt Cattlin mine near Ravensthorpe in WA, which is a recommissioned mine, has a planned production of 160,000 tonnes this year (2017) and shipped 10,000 tonnes in January 2017 via the port of Esperance. Galaxy Resources wholly owns the Mt Cattlin spodumene project. Previously Galaxy was mining pegmatite ore at Mt Cattlin which was processed on site to produce a spodumene concentrate and a tantalum by-product. At full capacity, ore could be processed at a rate of one million tonnes per annum (tpa) with lithium oxide concentrate production of 137,000 tpa. Galaxy noted that some 41 834 t of lithium concentrate was sold from the Mt Cattlin operation during the quarter under review, an increase of 39% on the June quarter (2017). In its current manifestation the target is 160,000 tonnes per annum of 5.5% spodumene concentrate with a goal of getting to the 6% grade.

The first shipment of product left port in the first days of January of this year. In October of 2016 it was announced that Mitsubishi would buy 100% of the spodumene output of Mt Cattlin and Mitsubishi did indeed buy the first shipment. The March quarterly statement (2017) announced that Galaxy had signed binding agreements with Chinese offtakers for 120,000 tpa during the December quarter.

More than 1000 West Australians now work for lithium miners, and that is likely to double or triple in the next few years since companies such as Mineral Resources, Neometals and Galaxy Resources have begun shipping lithium, and hopefuls such as Pilbara Minerals, Altura Mining and Kidman Resources have major projects in the pipeline.

Activity in the sector is attracting big names including Chilean major Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM) which has inked a deal to bankroll a new deposit in the Goldfields with Kidman Resources. It includes plans to build a $100 million refinery at either Bunbury, Perth or Kalgoorlie. The deal was announced just days after Kidman won a Supreme Court battle against another miner to maintain control of the mine. Kidman Resources has finalised a $US110 million, 50-50 joint venture agreement with Chile’s SQM (Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile) at the Mt Holland lithium operations in Western Australia.

The two companies, which flagged they would form a JV in July, intend to build a mine and concentrator producing 6 per cent lithium concentrate.

They eventually aim to develop a refinery — currently undergoing a feasibility study — for the production of lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide, dependent on the continued potential of the in-demand ore.

The JV represents a considerable step for Kidman into the lucrative lithium mining industry, drawing on what the company’s managing director Martin Donahue refers to as SQM’s “considerable metallurgical expertise”.

Kidman will retain sole marketing rights to its 50 per cent share of lithium production, as well as all rights to Mt Holland’s gold resources as part of the deal.

The $US110 million JV is broken into two parts. SQM is paying $US30 million for a 50 per cent share of the Mt Holland tenements, while the remaining $US80 million will also be paid by SQM for further project funding.

SQM is one of the world’s major players in the lithium industry, controlling 26 per cent of the global market as of January 2017.

Asutralia is SQM first big move outside of South America, adding to expansion in Argentina.

Pilbara Minerals’ 100%-owned Pilgangoora Lithium-Tantalum Project, located 120km from Port Hedland in Western Australia’s resource-rich Pilbara region, is one of the biggest new lithium ore (spodumene) deposits in the world, with a globally significant hard rock spodumene resource. Analysts at Citi said it should be a good money spinner for the company with healthy margins of 52 per cent.

Substantial increases in the Global Resource at Pilgangoora have reinforced its status as Australia’s premier lithium development Project. The most recent Ore Reserve estimate, published in June 2017, comprises a Proved and Probable Ore Reserve of 80.3 million tonnes grading 1.27% Li2O (lithia) and 123ppm Ta2O5 (tantalite)

The Project is readily accessible by road, with relatively simple access to existing infrastructure (including downstream port facilities) at the existing port of Port Hedland.

Pilbara Minerals chief executive said mine should be commissioned early next year. The company will export the concentrate to China, where two Chinese companies have signed off take agreements to process it into lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide.

Players like Lithium Australia is targeting lower grade lithium and recycling of old batteries. While the focus for most miners has been getting their lithium to market as quickly as possible, “Our focus has been developing processing technology to a large extent focusing on the materials people don’t want to process at the moment,” Lithium Australia managing director Adrian Griffin said.

“One of the things Australia really needs to look at is the recycling of waste battery materials.”

“We can’t afford to keep throwing these things away: At the moment there’s about 8,000 tonnes a year of battery materials going to landfill and there’s only about 800 tonnes recycled.”[2] Lithium Australia NL believes disruptive lithium chemical production will power the energy revolution that’s transforming the world as we know it.

To that end, the Company has developed SiLeach®, an exclusive technology that can process all lithium silicates into battery-grade materials without the need for ‘roasting’. This advance on traditional processing methods is a world first.

Lithium Australia NL (‘LIT’) has one over-arching goal: the application of its disruptive processing technologies to the production of lithium chemicals on a commercial scale and at an operating cost in the lowest quartile. To achieve its ends, LIT is: procuring access to feed materials with low exposure to mining costs; processing materials considered waste by other operators; developing strong strategic partnerships, and maintaining equity in resource projects globally.

Altura Mining Altura’s Pilgangoora Lithium project has confirmed a JORC (2004) Mineral Resource estimate of 25.2 Mt at 1.23 per cent Li20, ranking alongside the best international hard rock lithium deposits, with the added advantage of ease of accessibility to infrastructure and port facilities. [3]

Major players are likely to continue to scope for deals in the state to secure supply for the next 20 or 30 years, according to consultant Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. “There are serious companies investing and people are starting to lock up the biggest, long-life resources. The question is — who’s next?” Simon Moores, MD of Benchmark Mineral said by phone from London. Though on a smaller scale, “it’s a land grab, like in the petroleum industry when BP, Shell and others rounded on the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s”.[4]

Up the value chain

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation has made its first investment at the start of the supply chain for the clean energy economy with a $20 million contribution to a new lithium-tantalum mining project in Western Australia.

The $US15 million investment is being made as part of a $US100 million secured bond issued by an offshoot of Pilbara Minerals, an ASX-listed company that hopes to extract lithium and supply the market for lithium-ion battery storage products for electricity and electric vehicles. CEFC chief executive Ian Learmonth says the investment is the first of the kind for the CEFC, and is an example of how the CEFC can support the development of a strong supply chain to further enable Australia’s – and the world’s – transition to a low carbon economy.

“Lithium is an essential part of the clean energy transition, particularly as we develop enhanced battery storage technologies that will allow us to increase the use of renewable energy, both for large- scale and small-scale projects,” he said in a statement.

The CSIRO, in its recent Low Emissions Technology Roadmap, said is well positioned to benefit from growth in the global battery market, which it expected to reach 100GW in the next 20 years.

It comes as at least two different consortia advance plans for battery storage manufacturing “gigafactories” in Australia, including one in Townsville led by the Boston Energy Group and another smaller one in Darwin led by Energy Renaissance, backed by UGL.

QUT researchers have produced Australia’s first lithium-ion battery after establishing the country’s only facility capable of such manufacturing. The facility is built within the university’s pilot plant precinct at Banyo on Brisbane’s northside.

Professor Peter Talbot from QUT’s Institute for Future Environments said the batteries were based on commercial battery formats comparable to those used to power Tesla vehicles.

“Importantly, as part of this project we identified the best lithium-based powders to use to create a battery of the highest energy-efficiency standards possible,” he said.

“The powder is a combination of lithium and other compounds. We tested various compositions of chemicals until we were satisfied that we had achieved the best powder possible.

“Our process enables us to rapidly test and prototype rechargeable lithium-ion batteries of various shapes and sizes.”

He said the research could be used to kick start a commercial lithium-ion battery manufacturing industry in Australia, with the batteries being one of the most popular types of rechargeable batteries used in portable electronics from mobile phones, to power tools and drones.

“This process could be automated to enable Australia to have a competitive advantage in a manufacturing space that is currently dominated by China.

Tesla has announced it will build the biggest-ever lithium ion battery in South Australia.

The 100 megawatt battery will act like an electricity back-up – it will store excess energy generated by a wind farm when electricity demands are low, then feed it back into the grid during peak hour.

South Australia has adopted renewable technologies faster than any other state in Australia, but repeated blackouts since September have sparked uncertainties about their reliability.

In March, Tesla founder Elon Musk offered to fix the problem with a large-scale version of a Tesla car battery. On Twitter, he said he would get the system up and running within 100 days, or else do it for free.

Today, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced that a deal had been struck. Tesla’s megabattery will be paired with the Hornsdale Wind Farm, which is being built near Jamestown in the state’s mid-north region. The launch date is expected to be in December this year.

The battery will in fact be made up of thousands of Tesla car lithium ion batteries packed into hundreds of refrigerator-sized units spread across a field. Combined, they will be able to power 30,000 homes. [5]