Driven by our world’s insatiable hunger for energy, lithium and its chemical compounds are proving to possess a wide range of industrial applications, especially in their use in lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) as a power source.

The 2017 New Energy Outlook – Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s annual analysis of the future of energy – predicts that global power demand between 2017 and 2040 will grow by 58%, or roughly, 2% per year. In that same time frame, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that lithium-ion batteries used for energy storage will become a $20 billion per year market – a tenfold increase on current figures – with small-scale batteries installed by households and businesses alongside PV systems accounting for 57% of installed storage capacity worldwide by 2040.

In 2016 alone, global lithium carbonate consumption was at 197,000 tonnes per annum, of which, more than 56,000 tonnes were consumed in LIBs, and a further 18,000 tonnes was converted into lithium hydroxide, mainly for the use in LIBs.

For the past three years, Tesla was behind much of the shifts and drivers in the lithium space. In January 2017, the company began production at its Gigafactory 1 facility in Nevada, which is expected in 2018 to produce 35 GWh per year of LIB cells. Tesla’s Q1 2018 vehicle production totalled 34,494 vehicles – an increase of 40% from Q4 2017.

But Tesla is no longer the sole player in the lithium space. Many carmakers have begun outlining plans to win a wedge of the electric vehicle (EV) pie. So much so, that in Q1 2018 analysts at UBS raised their forecast for global EV sales in 2021 to 3.1 million units from 2.5 million, and to 14.2 million units in 2025.

Based on these predictions, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence believes that the surging momentum for EVs will push demand for LIBs above 400 GWh by 2025, which means that supply of lithium will need to reach 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes by the same year.

Ken Brinsden, Managing Director & CEO of Pilbara Minerals believes that the main factor driving lithium demand is the global transformation in how we consume and distribute energy, as well as how we source our energy.

“Lithium-ion batteries are becoming increasingly an important co-commitment to each of those objectives,” said Mr Brinsden.

In Q1, China continued to be a key player in the EV space. With the Chinese government pushing for all-electric battery cars and plug-in hybrids to account for at least one-fifth of its vehicle sales by 2025, as cited by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China already produces 55% of LIBs globally, and its share is forecast to grow to 65%.

“China was well ahead of other nations in the race to develop lithium-ion battery technology and the push to mass-produce electric vehicles,” said Mr Brinsden.

The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC) sees Australia in a remarkable position in the lithium space to benefit from local advantages. The nation is now responsible for mining the majority of the world’s lithium as well as all of the minerals necessary to domestically manufacture batteries. But, the Association warns that Australia has a window of roughly two years before the global market has locked down just where battery components and batteries will be sourced, manufactured and by whom.

NOT ALL BATTERIES POINT TO EVs

Australia’s power woes have been hitting the headlines steadfastly and recurrently since several major power outages, especially those experienced in 2016 in the State of South Australia, became planted firmly on the political agenda.

Elon Musk and Tesla provided South Australia and Premier Jay Weatherill with an answer: the Tesla Powerpack – a massive lithium ion battery located in Jamestown. The Tesla Powerpack connects to a wind farm operated by French energy firm Neoen and is expected to hold enough power for thousands of homes during periods of excess demand that could result in blackouts.

The South Australian government did not stop there. Just this year, the government backed the British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta with a AU$10 million loan to build an even bigger battery at Port Augusta.

The State of Victoria appears to be following suit. MinterEllison, a legal and consulting firm, has confirmed that Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) has launched Energy Storing Initiative (ESI) – a funding program that will deliver two large-scale battery storage projects for grid constrained areas in Western Victoria.

One of the batteries – yes, another Tesla 25MW/50MWh – will be integrated with the Gannawarra Solar Farm. The second battery, a 30MW/30MWh system will connect directly to a vital grid intersection at a substation at Warrenheip, near Ballarat.

“This is a first of its kind project in Victoria, with many unique challenges and opportunities for our team and the Department,” said MinterEllison partner Kylie Diwell.

AUSTRALIA AT THE FOREFRONT IN THE SUPPLY CHAIN

Australia appears to be at the forefront of the potential AU$2 trillion value chain in the new battery mineral sector, which corrals other commodities like cobalt, graphite, nickel and rare earths, by being able to offer international battery and EV car manufacturers certainty of supply, low sovereign risk, high quality ore, sustainable volumes and breakthrough battery mineral processing technologies.

Bill Repard, Executive Chairman of the Paydirt Conference, says that Australia, and predominantly Western Australia, already “supply more than 60% of the world’s lithium and that is an own goal going begging in terms of value-adding a processing stream to it”.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Minerals Commodities Limited Business Development Manager, Daniel Hastings, believes that Western Australia is well placed to entice battery manufacturing infrastructure, with the State expected to be the only jurisdiction in Australia to produce all raw materials for LIB production. A position supported by the Western Australia Government Minister for Mines and Petroleum, Bill Johnston.

In an interview with Small Caps, Mr Johnston echoed the view that development in lithium and battery technologies was a “real opportunity for Western Australia, not just in mining but also in downstream processing”.

“The reason that Western Australia’s mining sector is so successful is because it’s about the applied application of technology, it’s about being at the forefront of innovation. The future success of the industry will be about continuing to apply technology.

Western Australia has effectively all the minerals that are needed to create a battery and we have investments in processing here in Western Australia, which will give us the opportunity to build a world-class battery minerals sector,” said Mr Johnston.

Midas Engineering Group Director/Principal Consulting Engineer, Damian Connelly predicts the battery minerals demand to potentially surpass Western Australia’s 1990s gold boom.

“The market and financial institutions are underestimating the huge disruptive change and the speed of change occurring in the technology of the battery market.

“The very demanding technical specifications for battery minerals will limit the suitability of some ores.

“Demand is currently exceeding supply and current expansions will still lag behind for a number of years to come,” Mr Connelly said.

LITHIUM SPACE IN AUSTRALIA

Along with the increase in demand for lithium, prices for the refined product have risen and logistics efficiencies have been sought. Australian producers have traditionally “concentrated” their ore close to the mine site to reduce the physical volume of ore moved, although such concentrating still results in shipments of product of only 6% lithium content. Higher value lithium refining and further processing has typically taken place offshore driven by the historical position China established from its own relatively small lithium extraction. Even though China is a smaller producer, it has a major presence in downstream processing.

As a result of the chemistry of lithium in concentrate, the act of processing concentrate further into battery grade product delivers a more than six-fold efficiency in transport and logistics. Accordingly, by building this processing closer to the mine, value can be created by significant cost savings.

Australia appears to be currently transitioning into this secondary stage of processing.

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Integration of compatible technologies will ‘close the loop’ on energy-metal usage and re-birth waste materials as superior cathode powders for the manufacture of LIBs

Lithium Australia

Lithium Australia is an Australia-based company, engaged in the project acquisition, mineral exploration and process development of lithium. According to the company mission, Lithium Australia has “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”.

In Q1 2018, Lithium Australia acquired 99.7% of Very Small Particle Company’s (VSPC) – a Brisbane battery cathode developer – issued capital.

VSPC is the brainchild of a number of prominent Queensland-based university research workers who spent 14 years and approximately AU$30 million developing what Lithium Australia believes to be the world’s most advanced cathode production technology for lithium-ion batteries.

The acquisition comprised of procuring VSPC’s assets including intellectual property and a decommissioned pilot plant in Brisbane (Australia) designed to produce complex metal oxides/phosphate powders for the production of LIBs. The plant incorporates not only Australia’s most advanced LIB laboratory and testing facility, but also equipment for cathode coating and battery-cell production.

The VSPC acquisition will provide Lithium Australia with the ability to deliver cathode materials into the global LIB supply chain from a number of sources. The initial feed sources will include unconventional silicates such as micas contained in mine waste, low-grade and contaminated spodumene concentrates, waste materials from battery manufacturers and used LIBs.

Lithium Australia Managing Director, Adrian Griffin, sees the utilisation of mine waste, unconventional lithium minerals and waste batteries in the production of high-quality cathode materials as the ultimate test of sustainability.

“This approach will help reduce the pressure on primary sources of energy metals. The integrated technologies available to Lithium Australia will allow for better resource utilisation, reduce the quantity of valuable materials going to landfill and enable the rebirth of many materials as new generation LIBs.

“Supply shortages are already a reality in the lithium-ion battery space. VSPC provides us with the opportunity to manufacture the most advanced cathode materials in the world, at the high-margin end of the battery metals market. Importantly, VSPC will also allow us to capitalise on waste batteries as a feed source.

“This step is not only a great advance for Lithium Australia but also a step in the right direction for the development of sustainable energy technologies on an industrial scale.”

Lithium Australia’s SiLeach® technology

Lithium Australia has additionally secured a AU$18.27 million convertible note facility with a leading US institutional investor, Arena Investors LP.

Funds will be applied to advancing Lithium Australia’s large-scale Sileach® pilot plant for the production of lithium chemicals and for recommissioning the VSPC lithium-ion battery cathode plant.

SiLeach® technology is a chemical processing technology for the economic recovery of lithium from spodumene and lepidolite minerals. With large quantities of lithium continuing to be discharged to waste streams emanating from the production of a range of industrial minerals, Lithium Australia set out to develop a more efficient processing technology to allow exploitation of such materials.

In July 2017, the company completed a preliminary feasibility study (PFS) on the application of its SiLeach® technology to the recovery of lithium chemicals from micas.

This led to the development of the SiLeach® process, a fluoride-accelerated sulphuric-acid leach at elevated temperature but atmospheric pressure. Commercialisation of the SiLeach® process will allow exploitation of micas, the most common lithium minerals, which are currently considered waste.

Lithium Australia’s SiLeach® Large-Scale Pilot Plant (LSPP) is designed to produce lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) at an annualised rate of 2,500 tonnes from approximately 27,500 tonnes of lepidolite mica feed (to a maximum grade of 4.5% Li2O), this output being approximately one-tenth the scale of output of a full-scale commercial lithium carbonate production facility. Actual output will depend on the final feed grades achieved from a particular source, the likelihood being that locally sourced feed will be of a lower grade and produce less output than the 2,500-tonne design capacity.

While the primary aim of the LSPP is to produce lithium chemicals, production of by-products is also integral to its development. Potentially, by-products like potassium sulphate (K2SO4), sodium silicate (Na2SiO3), caesium (Cs) and rubidium (Rb) can also be produced using the SiLeach® process.

“Our commitment to advancing the SiLeach® process to an industrial scale is a critical element in the research and development required to bring a superior process into the lithium industry. Success will allow us to utilise mine waste in the production of lithium chemicals, one of our great sustainability goals,” said Mr Griffin.

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Lepidico’s L-Max® technology

Lepidico

Brisbane and Perth-based Lepidico is a lithium exploration company and the 100% owner and licensor of the L-Max® technology.

L-Max® is a propriety and disruptive process which has the potential to commercially extract lithium chemicals for the electric battery market.

It is a hydrometallurgical process that involves the direct atmospheric leach of lithium micas, followed by impurity removal stages and the subsequent precipitation of lithium carbonate. This differs considerably from the processing of spodumene, which requires high temperature decrepitation and sulphate roasting prior to lithium recovery – a relatively expensive process.

Lepidico is seeking to commercialise L-Max®, which is characterised by employing low-cost, readily available reagents, industry standard equipment and is expected to have lower energy requirements.

In addition, L-Max® has the potential to also recover valuable by-products from the Li-rich micas including potassium sulphate, sodium silicate and caesium/rubidium formate.

LEADING COMPANIES IN THE AUSTRALIAN LITHIUM GAME

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Concentrate stockpiles at Tawana’s Bald Hill lithium operations. Image source: Tawana Resources

Tawana Resources – Bald Hill

Tawana Resources and Alliance Mineral Assets Limited (AMAL) operate the Bald Hill Lithium and Tantalum Mine (Bald Hill) in the Eastern Goldfields region of Western Australia.

Bald Hill, a joint venture project between Tawana and AMAL, is the first Australian mine to commence spodumene production since 2016.

Ore commissioning through the newly‐constructed Dense Media Separation (DMS) circuit has made significant progress in the first two weeks of operation. The DMS circuit has performed to expectations with nameplate capacity of 162tph achieved within the first two weeks of ore commissioning. The DMS circuit is scheduled to be ramped up to full production rate during the second quarter of 2018.

The first of three performance tests have been successfully completed, with 4,152 tonnes of ore processed over a 24‐hour period at an average processing rate of 173tph. Initial sampling of the primary concentrate returned a grade of 7.03% Li2O, 0.34% Fe2O3 and 1.12% combined Na2O and K2O, with the concentrates containing less than 1% mica. Initial sampling of waste material returned a grade of 0.10% Li2O.

These initial results have been achieved on low grade commissioning ore. The plant performance is consistent with results achieved in test work in the development and design phase of the project.

Tawana’s Managing Director Mark Calderwood said that the production of concentrates with more than 6% Li2O, within the first two weeks of ore commissioning, exceeded “expectations given the initial low feed grade ore being used for commissioning start up”. “Equally impressive is the exceptionally low iron and mica contents. It is particularly pleasing to see predicted plant performance being achieved in practice.

The high quality of concentrates appears to be testament to the favourable mineralogy‐metallurgy of the Bald Hill deposit and the bespoke design of the DMS circuit,” said Mr Calderwood.

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Aerial view of the Altura Lithium Project taken in January 2018
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(L-R) Altura’s Registered Manager Phil Robinson, Global Lithium’s Joe Lowry and Emily Hersh, and Altura Chief Operating Officer Chris Evans
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Construction of the Pilbara Minerals’ Pilgangoora process plant

Altura Mining

In Q1 2018, Altura Mining announced that it expected to enter the pivotal process plant commissioning phase as it continued to move toward first production from its flagship Altura Lithium Project in the Pilbara.

With construction and development now at an advanced stage, Altura has appointed a Commissioning Manager to oversee the final stages and drive the commissioning plan in conjunction with project teams and construction partner Civmec. The crushing circuit is scheduled to commence commissioning in March, with the wet plant to follow in April/May, including both the Dense Media Separation (DMS) and Flotation circuits.

The recent progress has kept Altura on-track to meet its target of first lithium concentrate sales in Q2 2018.

The Definitive Feasibility Study for duplicating the current forecasted output of the processing plant to 440,000 tonnes per annum is well advanced and remains on target for completion in April 2018.

The Company has also commenced a revised mining schedule to support the upgraded production target.

Altura Managing Director James Brown said the operations team had risen to the challenge of the aggressive timetable set in place just 12 months ago.

“It is a testament to the hard work of the entire team that we now have the commissioning phase clearly in sight and taking this project to near term production from a greenfields site.”

Pilbara Minerals – Pilgangoora Lithium-Tantalum Project

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.

First spodumene concentrate is on track for late Q2 with Stage 1 plant construction and mine development advancing rapidly, with first sales expected early Q2.

In addition to Stage 1 construction efforts, MACA Mining Ltd has mobilised the mining fleet for Direct Shipping Ore (DSO) operations, with the first blast undertaken in late January and mining activities currently progressing to achieve first sales early Q2.

Activities for operational readiness are also progressing including ordering of key plant consumables, employment of plant operations staff and maintenance planning.

Australia answers the lithium call

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