Lithium Australia Aims For Sustainability In Energy Metals

THE INSIDE STORY: Lithium Australia NL (ASX: LIT), one of the first mining companies to enter the burgeoning lithium space, aims to “close the loop on the energy metal cycle” and create a sustainable lithium future.

While LIT continues to hone its SiLeach® metallurgical technology, its pending acquisition of the Very Small Particle Company (VSPC) will see it move into cathode production as well.

That move is an extension of LIT’s previously announced plans to form a viable battery recycling business.

LIT’s primary focus is the creation of a seamless and sustainable business chain involving several stages: sourcing lithium mineral resources (including mining ‘waste’) as feedstock; processing that feedstock via its SiLeach technology to produce high-quality lithium chemicals and value-adding by-products; further processing the lithium chemicals to create advanced lithium ion (Li-ion) battery cathode materials, and recycling energy metals from spent Li-ion batteries to re-use in new battery production.

The mainstay of this business chain is LIT’s disruptive SiLeach process, designed to efficiently digest and recover metal values from any silicate mineral, without the need for high-temperature, energy-intensive and environmentally adverse roasting.

What drove LIT’s development of SiLeach was its perception that the sustainability of lithium production could be improved by processing materials neglected by others as a feed source for lithium chemicals.

SiLeach is a hydrometallurgical process characterised by low energy consumption and high metal recoveries, with the benefit of extensive by-product credits.

Importantly, it can be applied across a wide range of lithium feedstock, including spodumene, but also lithium micas, which are at present an under-utilised resource.

“We can access lithium from sources that until now were considered unviable, due to a lack of appropriate processing routes – it means we can effectively create value from waste material that would otherwise end up in tailings dams,” Lithium Australia business development manager Brett Fowler told The Resources Roadhouse.

Earlier this year, LIT worked with The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) to produce battery-grade lithium carbonate feed from its SiLeach pilot plant.

Ore from the Lepidolite Hill lithium deposit in Western Australia was used as feedstock.

Subsequently, further engineering design studies and financial modelling for the construction of a proposed large-scale pilot plant (LSPP) have been completed.

“Our next goal is the construction of that plant,” said Fowler.

“We’ve completed a pre-feasibility study, which showed a positive outcome, and are now completing optimisation studies.

“Lithium Australia will make an investment decision on whether to proceed at the end of 2017 or very early in 2018.

“Our large-scale pilot plant is expected to produce 2,500 tonnes of lithium carbonate per annum, approximately one-tenth of what would be produced by a full-scale production plant.”

LIT’s proposed LSPP will be based on studies that indicate it can be cash-positive, based on the production of lithium carbonate only and before by-product credits. With economies of scale, and with the inclusion of valuable by-products, a full-scale plant promises a low-cost production route.

The studies concluded that:

• recovery of high-purity lithium carbonate, such as that produced by the ANSTO-operated pilot plant and meeting offtake specification, can be achieved;

• hydrometallurgical plant operating costs would be around US$5,600 to US$6,400 per tonne of lithium carbonate produced, without taking into account potential by-product credits;

• by-product credits may significantly reduce operating costs;

• there is potential for further significant improvements to both capital and operating costs as a result of:

o improved water management;

o optimisation of reagent mix and usage;

o better control of neutralisation to minimise lithium losses;

o optimising the trade-off between residence time and recovery, and

o economies of scale transitioning from pilot-plant testing to commercial operations.

LIT’s preferred supply model is sourcing lithium mica from the waste streams of already operating mines or historical dumps and tailings; however, it is also pursuing exploration activity to secure alternative supplies, both within Australia and globally.

The company has identified sourcing of the feed material as a high priority and a critical requirement for committing to the construction of the LSPP.

In the meantime, further optimisation studies aim to improve both capital and operating costs.

“We hope to make a decision, as a company, to go ahead with that construction by early 2018 – spending in the order of $40 million to do so,” Fowler said.

“We’ve been looking at potential sites for the plant in Asia, including Malaysia; however, a West Australian-based facility is a strong option too.”

LIT is currently seeking expressions of interest regarding product offtake agreements for the LSPP.

“There’s already a significant amount of international interest in LIT’s approach and the large-scale pilot plant,” Fowler continued.

“Development activities at the moment include the structuring of finance options and the development of off-take marketing strategies; both have a completion objective of early next year.

“We think interest will grow once the large-scale pilot plant shifts into gear and we successfully demonstrate our SiLeach® approach. It will lead the way to a full-scale production plant.”

Meanwhile, LIT has finalised its due diligence for the acquisition of advanced cathode-material producer VSPC.

VSPC owns a proprietary process for the production of advanced, high-quality lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) battery cathode nano-powder material, as well as a pilot plant with advanced laboratory and large-scale testing facilities.

The VSPC technology, which can be adapted to generate a wide range of cathode nano-powder materials, is a simple and cost-effective method of producing such materials in an environment of superior quality control.

“Independent testing by a German laboratory of product generated from the VSPC’s facility showed it to be better than the standards required,” Fowler explained.

“It’s an advanced technology that was invented in Australia a few years ago, but for one reason or another things didn’t go ahead as planned.

“LIT recognised the opportunity and saw the business as a natural fit with our sustainability and value-adding strategies – we’re aiming to lead in Australia’s nascent clean-tech manufacturing sector.”

VSPC’s process is compatible with solutions produced during the processing of hard-rock minerals to recover lithium carbonate, or lithium hydroxide. It means that lithium carbonate produced by virtue of LIT’s SiLeach technology can be used as feedstock for VSPC’s cathode production.

The advantage for LIT lies in the fact that direct production of cathode materials from SiLeach-produced solutions potentially removes two process steps usually inherent in the manufacture of cathode materials.

As a result, LIT creates a revolutionary flowsheet that capitalises on the value-add of shortening the route from lithium chemicals to cathode materials.

As governments worldwide – among them China, Britain, France, Germany, Norway and The Netherlands – legislate to transition from internal combustion engines to all-electric vehicles (EVs), the emerging market for EVs could create an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

EVs require reliable, high-performance batteries, production of which will rely on greater, and more sustainable, supplies of lithium and other energy metals. It’s a situation LIT is monitoring closely and taking very seriously indeed.

Lithium Australia NL (ASX: LIT)
… the short story

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Adrian Griffin, George Bauk, Bryan Dixon