There are currently over 400 individual lithium projects
scattered across the world, both green and brownfield
developments, established or revived in response to the
projected sharp rise in global lithium demand.
Current global lithium demand is estimated to be around
200,000 tpa lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) but is expected
to rise to somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 tpa by
As an historic producer of lithium, it is not surprising
that Australia has been one of the first countries to react to
the lithium market’s glowing prospects.
So far in 2017, around 90,000 tonnes spodumene has left
Australia, mainly bound for China.
Australia is home to more than 100 lithium projects, most of
which are concentrated in Western Australia (WA), consisting of
pegmatitic deposits. The most promising deposits are
spodumene-rich, but there are also mica-rich deposits as well
as potential brine deposits in the south of the country.
After refurbishing and upgrading the past-producing Mt
Cattlin operation in WA, ASX-listed Galaxy Resources Ltd
restarted mining at the site in 2016. In January 2017, the
company announced it had just shipped approximately 10,000
tonnes of lithium concentrate. A second shipment of 13,950
tonnes was despatched March.
Fellow Australian producer Neometals Ltd’s Mt
Marion project, also in WA, was the first real newcomer to
Australian lithium production. Neometals, which has a minority
stake in the mine alongside ASX-listed Mineral Resources Ltd
and China’s Ganfeng Lithium Co. Ltd, which each
hold 43.1% of Mt Marion, made its maiden shipment of 15,000
tonnes lithium in February. A further 16,662 tonnes of
concentrate was shipped in March.
The historic Greenbushes lithium mine in WA, co-owned by
Chinese company Sichuan Tianqi Lithium Industries Inc. and
US-based Abermarle Corp., which acquired the
mine’s long-timer Australian operator Talison
Lithium, is estimated to produce around 60,000 tpa
The success of Greenbushes has led several hopeful lithium
explorers to apply for leases in the surrounding area. Lithium
Australia NL, Cullen Exploration Ltd, China Magnesium Corp.,
Lithium Power International Ltd, Slipstream Resources
Investments Ltd, Venus Metals Corporation Ltd and various
smaller private companies hold exploration leases within a 10km
radius of the Greenbushes mine.
|Figure 1: Cauchari-Olaroz lithium
project testing ponds.
Source: Lithium Americas
Pilbarra Minerals Ltd’s Pilgangoora
lithium-tantalum Project, located 120km from Port Hedland in
WA, is a spodumene deposit with measured, indicated and
inferred resources of 156m tonnes, grading at 1.25% lithium
In June 2016, Pilbara Minerals agreed to jointly progress
Lithium Australia’s Sileach processing technology
and has since carried out successful testing of spodumene
concentrates from Pilgangoora.
The company has been granted a mining lease for Pilgangoora
but is still looking to improve its financing and offtake
position to fund the project’s construction.
Pilbara Minerals currently has an offtake agreement with
Chinese supplier General Lithium Haimen Corp. for 40% of
Pilgangoora’s initial anticipated output of around
330,000 tpa concentrate, or around 44,000 tpa of LCE, as well
as a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with General Lithium,
another Chinese firm, to establish a downstream processing
If the project goes ahead according to plan, the 330,000 tpa
of concentrate, which includes technical grade material, will
be a substantial addition to Chinese imports of spodumene,
which Pilbara Minerals has estimated to be around 416,000 tpa
of 6% spodumene concentrates.
While the project may take some years to ramp up and iron
out any processing issues, the Pilgangoora mine looks set to
add substantially to global lithium supply in the foreseeable
Adjacent to Pilbara Minerals’ project is
another development, also called Pilgangoora, owned by Altura
Mining Ltd with measured, indicated and inferred resources of
35.7m tonnes. According to Altura, their project could be in
production by early 2018.
Melbourne-based financial consulting group Beer and Co.
estimates that Altura can produce around 50,000 tonnes 6%
spodumene concentrates before June 2018 from Pilgangoora, and
ramp up to 237,000 tpa by the 2020-21 financial year.
Altura already has a binding offtake agreement with
China-based Lionergy Ltd for 100,000 tpa of 6% Li2O
spodumene concentrate for an initial five-year period as well
as a non-binding MoU with Optimum Nano Battery Co. Ltd, a
Chinese lithium battery and electric vehicle maker.
Chile’s Sociedad Quimica y Minera SA (SQM) was
the world’s largest lithium producer in 2016 with
a market share of 29%, and it shows no sign of stopping. The
company is taking advantage of strong global demand with
lithium prices up 80%, and lithium revenue up 130% year-on-year
The company obtains lithium brine from the Atacama Salar,
Chile, which includes a rough 30 year mine life at current
production levels. SQM’s production capacity
amounts to 48 ktpy of lithium carbonate, while hydroxide
capacity is 6ktpa.
Expansion plans for SQM are focused on Lithium
America’s Cauchari Olaroz joint venture
FMC currently sits on one of the world’s best
lithium resources, the Salar del Hombre Muerto (SHM) in
Argentina, where it extracts relatively high purity, high grade
lithium at a production capacity of 23ktpa.
FMC is taking a relatively different approach in expanding
its lithium business after committing to triple its lithium
hydroxide capacity in May, 2016. The company said in its Q4
2016 earnings call that their "hydroxide expansion will result
in a significant increase in volume in 2017" and that they are
"confident" that commercial sales will commence in July
In addition to this, Nemaska Lithium has agreed to supply
8,000 tpa lithium carbonate to FMC beginning in mid-2018 in
October 2016, but has since moved this date to the 1st of April
2019. Besides internal expansions, the deal seems crucial for
FMC to achieve their expansion commitments. The company has
since announced that it intends to "spin-out" their lithium
business not before the end of 2018.
|A view from above: the scale of
the brine evaporation process needs
to be seen to be believed. Here is an image taken by
NASA of FMC’s
salar de Hombre Muerto
Albemarle Lithium, otherwise known as Rockwood Lithium,
produces lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide from the
Atacama Salar in Chile as well as from Silver Peak brine,
Nevada. In addition, Albemarle also obtains lithium through its
part-owned spodumene mining operation at Greenbushes, Western
Albermarle has said that it plans to grow its total combined
LCE production to around 165,000 tpa in the next 10 years,
helped along by doubling lithium concentrate from Greenbushes
some time after construction begins in Q2 2019. The company
plans to bring on 10,000 tpa LCE this year, the majority of
which will come from its Chilean La Negra facility.
|Ready to load: a shipment of spodumene
from Tianqi Lithium’s
Greenbushes mine in WA.
International lithium projects
Galaxy Resources is looking to use cash-flow from Mt Cattlin
to develop the Sal De Vida lithium brine project in Argentina,
with initial site works due to start this year, including test
evaporation ponds, exploratory wells and further processing
In February 2017, Galaxy appointed several leading lithium
experts to help it begin the project.
Chilean industry heavyweight Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM)
last year paid $25m for a 50% stake in Canada-based Lithium
Americas’ Cauchari-Olaroz lithium brine project in
In January 2017, the company revealed that GFL International
Co. Ltd, part of China’s Ganfeng, had agreed to
invest $174m in the project in order to secure an offtake share
of production. In the same month, Thai petroleum refiner the
Bangchak Petroleum Public Co. Ltd announced it would contribute
$112m for a 16.4% stake in Lithium Americas and provide an $80m
debt facility for the construction of Cauchari-Olaroz.
The deal also gives Bangchak the right to purchase, at
market prices, 15% of Cauchari-Olaroz’s lithium
carbonate produced during the 25,000 tpa first phase of the
Lithium Americas is aiming to start construction of
Cauchari-Olaroz in the first half of this year, with production
due to start in 2019.
Canadian junior Enirgi Group Corp., through its local
subsidiary ADY Resources, has begun developing the Salar del
Rincon lithium property – a fairly advanced in
Argentina’s Salta province, for which the company
is working on a direct extraction processing technology in
order to extract lithium from raw, concentrated brine in less
than 24 hours.
Despite concerns over high magnesium and low lithium
concentrations in the brine, the company has demonstrated the
viability of its process through work conducted by the
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation
Enirgi had planned to begin construction of a 50,000 tpa LCE
plant at Salar del Rincon in 2015 and begin production in 2017,
but a downturn in the global mining cycle and a lack of cash
for exploration set the company’s schedule back.
It is now looking to produce its first 50,000 tonnes LCE in
2019, subject to funding and receipt of necessary
Canada and US
Critical Elements Corp. is in the advanced exploration stage
at its hard rock spodumene and lepidolite Rose lithium-tantalum
project in Quebec, Canada.
In April this year, the company announced that pilot plant
tests on Rose spodumene had produced concentrate grading up to
6.56% Li2O, with recoveries of up to
Rose is estimated to contain 26.5m tonnes of indicated
resources at 1.30% Li2O equivalent, or around
642,000 tonnes LCE.
|Figure 2: Contour map
of lithium-bearing formation
waters in west-central Alberta, Canada.
ERCB/AGS Open File Report 2011-10
The company hopes to begin producing spodumene by 2019 or
2020 and to enter the battery grade lithium carbonate market by
2022 or 2023.
Fellow Canadian company Nemaska Lithium Inc. has already
began trialling production methods using ore from its 32.9m
tonne measured, indicated and inferred Whabouchi project in
Quebec, with around 1,200 tonnes of ore having been so far fed
successfully into the dense media separation plant.
The company intends to send samples of lithium hydroxide to
global customers by mid-2017 and last year signed an agreement
with US lithium-producer FMC Corp. to supply it with lithium
carbonate once in production.
The agreement was amended in March this year to allow for
the company to extend the timeline for supply to no later than
1 April 2019, from a previously deadline of mid-2018". The
company insisted that it is on track to commence the
commissioning of the Shawinigan Hydromet Plant during the
second half of next year and said that FMC would make a $10m
payment in April towards the deal.
In the US, MGX Minerals is in the bulk sample and pilot
plant design optimisation phase of developing a project to
extract lithium from petrolithium waste brines originating in
Alberta, Canada and is also looking to source brines from the
US states of Utah Colorado, Texas and Arkansas.
The possibility of producing lithium from wastewater yielded
from petrochemical production was identified decades ago. The
Smackover Brine in Arkansas was acknowledged as a potential
source of lithium as early as the 1970s, but it is only
recently that technology has started to catch up with the
opportunity. Early studies such as Dang & Steinberg (1978),
spurned by a perceived rise in future lithium battery usage,
determined the concentrations from this brine in several
locations, determining that it could represent a substantial
reserve, and even proposed methods to extract lithium from this
Progress in this area has inspired other companies,
including Canada-headquartered Power Metals Corp., to invest in
IM Research recently
published its Global Lithium Market Report, which
includes details on the latest supply, demand and
processing trends. For more information, see the brochure