Lithium Australia and Pilbara Minerals to pilot lithium carbonate from spodumene
Lithium Australia NL (ASX: LIT) reported on an agreement with Pilbara Minerals Limited (ASX: PLS) to jointly pilot the development of LIT’s 100%-owned Sileach™ process, a proprietary technology that has shown promise to recover 92% of lithium from alpha- spodumene, even low-grade spodumene.
The production of pure, affordable lithium from hard rock (spodumene) is becoming a central issue for the deployment of lithium ion batteries. The energy footprint of hard rock lithium extraction processes makes them twice as expensive as conventional brines-based processes.
And so, much of the world’s lithium is produced from brines by Albemarle (NYSE:ALB), Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile (NYSE:SQM) and FMC (NYSE:FMC) from Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Australia and eastern China, and is shipped over long distances to battery makers in Asia.
There is a need to improve the purity of lithium while decreasing the net processing cost. Lithium is produced from brines as a carbonate salt using evaporation from massive salt ponds and is often contaminated by impurities that are carried through the process into the final product which ultimately affect the performance of batteries.
Lithium extraction from brine has a 12-month cycle and is relatively inefficient at a 40% recovery rate. In contrast, the Sileach™ process has a 4 hour cycle and yielded 92% recovery of lithium from spodumene at the bench scale.
The details of the technology are not disclosed on the company’s website or in any patent’s office bureaus that we queried. According to Lithium Australia, the Sileach™ process has been successfully tested in the course of bench testing at a number of laboratories. The recent results from testing of concentrates from Pilgangoora, and other spodumene sources, have provided sufficient encouragement to consider pilot testing. The agreement between Lithium Austrialia and Pilbara Minerals aims to scale up the previous bench processes at a larger-scale pilot facility as an intermediate step toward the commercialization of the process.
Get our daily investorintel update
While the emphasis of this pilot project is on spodumene, the technology has been successful at the extraction of lithium at the bench scale as a universal leaching process for micas, jadarite and clays.
In the event of successful testing, one of the partners’ options is to proceed with construction of a larger-scale pilot plant, for which Port Hedland is currently the preferred location. The plant will be designed and constructed on such a scale as to be operating cost neutral, i.e. with the ability to recover costs through the production of commercial lithium chemicals and by-products.
LIT is a dedicated developer of disruptive lithium extraction technologies including the versatile Sileach™ process, which is capable of recovering lithium from any silicate minerals. LIT has strategic alliances with a number of companies, potentially providing access to a diversified lithium mineral inventory globally.
Investors should watch for three factors from the pilot tests: mass and energy balance to ascertain that the overall efficiency of the process is at least equal to that of the brine process, purity of the resulting lithium carbonate, and process scalability. Notwithstanding the promising results of the technology, its scalability is critical in the long run. As always scalability is what turns Chief Technology Officers Obama-Grey.
Dr. Luc C. Duchesne is a Speaker and Author with a PhD in Biochemistry. With three decades of scientific and business experience, he has published ... <Read more about Dr. Luc Duchesne>