Lithium

David Champion (david.champion@ga.gov.au)

Roy Towner (roy.towner@ga.gov.au)

Lithium (Li) is recovered from both mineral deposits, largely from the mineral spodumene (Li2O.Al2O3.4SiO2), and from salts, largely from lithium-rich brines in salt lakes. Lithium has a range of uses in both chemical and technical applications.

Lithium in various forms, e.g., as lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, lithium chloride, is used in lubricant greases, pharmaceuticals, catalysts, air treatment and particularly in batteries—both non-rechargeable (primary) lithium batteries and rechargeable (secondary) Li-ion batteries. Demand for lithium has expanded significantly in recent years as a result of its increasing use in rechargeable batteries for portable electronic devices, such as mobile phones, computers and rechargeable power tools, as well as in batteries and electric motors for electric bikes, hybrid and electric passenger cars, and other vehicles.

The major technical application for lithium is for production of ceramics and glasses, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, e.g., oven wear and cook tops, as well as fluxes and glazes. Lithium is also used in its metal form in alloys, e.g., aluminium lithium alloy, magnesium lithium alloy, such as in the aerospace industry, taking advantage of the strong and light weight (low-density) characteristics lithium imparts.

For location of lithium deposits refer to Fig. 14 in the Tin chapter.

Resources

Australia's Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) are estimated to be 1006 kilotonnes (kt) of lithium in 2011, representing more than doubling of the 483 kt of lithium in 2010. All occur within hard rock pegmatite deposits. The bulk of Australia's lithium resources are in the Greenbushes' spodumene deposit, 250 kilometres (km) south of Perth, WA, and the bulk of the increase in Australia's EDR of lithium reflect a large increase of resources at this deposit. Greenbushes is the world's largest and highest grade spodumene deposit. Other EDR of lithium occur at Mount Marion about 40 km southwest of Kalgoorlie, Mount Cattlin, about 2 km north of Ravensthorpe, and Pilgangoora, 120 km south of Port Hedland, all in WA. Resources at Mount Marion amount to ˜45 kt, resources at the Mount Cattlin deposit total ˜70 kt, while resources at the Pilgangoora deposit total ˜40 kt.

In 2011, Subeconomic Resources of lithium, all in the submarginal category and all in WA, total less than one kilotonne.

Inferred Resources of lithium total ˜130 kt, an increase from the 90 kt in 2010; all are associated with the Greenbushes, Mount Cattlin, Mount Marion and Pilgangoora pegmatite deposits in WA, except for 4 kt in the Narraburra rare earth and rare metals project, 12 kilometres northeast of Temora, NSW.

Accessible EDR

All of Australia's EDR of lithium is accessible.

JORC Reserves

Joint Ore Reserve Committee (JORC) Code reserves comprise total lithium in Proved and Probable Ore Reserves as defined in the JORC Code. In 2011, JORC code reserves of 506 kt accounted for ˜50% of Australia's Accessible Economic Demonstrated Resources (AEDR). This compares with JORC Code reserves of 174 kt in 2010. At Australia's 2011 rate of spodumene production, lithium reserves in the JORC Code categories are adequate for over 40 years.

Exploration

There are only a few companies exploring for lithium mainly in WA but no statistics are available on exploration expenditure.

Production

According to figures released by both Talison Lithium and Galaxy Resources Ltd, total production of spodumene concentrates for 2011 at the Greenbushes and Mount Cattlin Mines, WA, amounted to ˜421 kt. This represents an increase of ˜39% on 2010 production. Assuming a 6% Li2O grade (true value between 4.8% and 7.5%), the 2011 production equates to ˜~11.7 kt of contained lithium.

World Resources

According to estimates by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) which have been modified by Geoscience Australia for Australia's resources, world lithium resources in 2011 totalled about 13 036 kt. The resource data does not include Canada. Chile holds approximately 7500 kt, or ˜58% of the total world resources, followed by China with 3500 kt (˜27%), Australia with 1006 kt (7.7%), and Argentina with 850 kt (6.5%).

Lithium resources occur in two distinct categories, lithium minerals and lithium-rich brines. Canada, China and Australia have significant resources of lithium minerals, while lithium brine is produced predominantly in Chile, followed by Argentina, China and the USA. Lithium brines are the dominant feedstock for lithium carbonate production. All Australia's current resources and production are from lithium minerals.

World production in 2011 was estimated by the USGS to be 34 kt of contained lithium, excluding the USA production for commercial reasons. Chile produced about 12.6 kt (˜37%) to remain the world's largest producer in 2010 followed closely by Australia (34%), China (15%) and Argentina (˜9%).

Industry Developments

According to various industries reports, the estimated global demand for lithium in 2011 was 130 000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE), approximately 10% above the previous year. The primary growth in demand was in lithium batteries, glass and ceramics segments. Within the lithium battery sector, growth areas were in batteries for laptops, mobile phones, and other personal electronic devices. Demand for lithium in the electric vehicles (EV) segment is forecast to grow exponentially from 2014 onwards as major global car manufacturers launch new models to secure EV market share. The subsidies provided by some governments, including various legislations on fuel emissions, to promote less reliance on fossil fuels and a cleaner environment, is expected to encourage consumers to gradually move into hybrid/plugin hybrid or EVs.

China was the world's largest global consumer of lithium products in 2011, at 50 000 tonnes of LCE and was also one of the largest producers of lithium cathode materials for use in lithium-ion batteries.

In Australia, Talison Lithium Limited, the world's largest producer of hard-rock spodumene produces two categories of lithium concentrates at the Greenbushes Lithium Operations in WA:

  • technical-grade lithium concentrates with low iron contents; and
  • high yielding chemical-grade lithium concentrate used to produce lithium chemicals.

The company does not produce lithium chemical products, selling lithium concentrate instead to customers for processing into lithium chemicals, primarily lithium carbonate.

In late 2009 and through 2010, demand for Talison's technical-grade lithium concentrates rebounded strongly following a slowdown in early 2009, particularly in the glass sector from traditional markets such as Europe, the USA and Japan. The company also experienced a substantial increase in demand for its chemical-grade lithium concentrates, particularly from Chinese lithium chemical producers for use in lithium-ion battery industries. Consequently, both the company's chemical-grade plant and technical-grade plant have been operating at full capacity since July 2009.

Following completion of its Stage 1 expansion in December 2010, the total nameplate capacity at the Greenbushes operation increased to approximately 315 000 tonnes per annum (tpa) lithium concentrate. In early 2011, the company announced a further expansion to 740 000 tpa lithium concentrate involving a new purpose built chemical-grade production facility at a cost of about $70 million. This plant was commissioned in the middle of 2012 and officially opened in August 2012. Talison is continuing to advance plans to develop a 20 000 tpa lithium-carbonate conversion plant in Australia to produce battery-grade lithium carbonate at a capital cost of between $160 million and $200 million. Preliminary studies into the proposed plant were completed late 2011 with Kwinana, WA, chosen as the preferred location. Talison are currently undertaking an engineering study into the plant. An investment decision is expected by the end of 2012. In March 2011, the company reported a 157% increase in Proven and Probable lithium Reserves at Greenbushes to 31.4 million tonnes (Mt) grading 3.1% Li2O with a combined Measured and Indicated Resource of 70.4 Mt grading 2.6% Li2O. Based on these lithium mineral reserves, the mine life has been extended by 10 years to 22 years. Talison commenced additional resource drilling in the first half of 2012 with the aims of increasing lithium reserves and extending mine life.

During 2011, Galaxy Resources Limited (Galaxy) continued to ramp up production from the Dowling Pit at its Mount Cattlin lithium-tantalum mine (hard-rock spodumene) near Ravensthorpe in WA. The company mined 616 714 tonnes of ore grading 1.11% Li2O producing 63 863 tonnes of spodumene grading 6.18% Li2O. The company also produced 464 tonnes of tantalum concentrate grading 3.3% contained Ta2O5 with 234 tonnes containing ˜6.85 tonnes Ta2O5 sold to Global Advanced Metals (GAM) under a long term agreement with Galaxy. When in full production, the Mount Cattlin project will produce 137 000 tpa of 6% Li2O spodumene concentrate and ˜25 tonnes of tantalite concentrate for an expected mine life of 16 years. Galaxy Resources Limited made its first shipment of 6500 tonnes of spodumene concentrate to China in March 2011 to its wholly-owned Lithium Carbonate Plant within the Yangtze River International Chemical Industrial Park in Jiangsu Province in China. Physical construction of the carbonate plant was completed in December 2011. The plant, commissioned in March 2012, with first production of lithium carbonate in April 2012, will produce 17 000 tonnes of battery grade lithium carbonate per year. Galaxy shipped a 10 tonne trial shipment of mica from its Mt Cattlin operation under a purchase agreement with a European international industrial minerals group that specialises in mica-based products. The company has commenced preliminary equipment design to achieve both the reduction of mica content in the final spodumene product and to produce a saleable mica by-product. In February 2011, the Mount Cattlin deposit had a reported JORC compliant resource of 18 188 kt at an average grade of 1.08% Li2O and 156 grams per tonne (g/t) tantalum pentoxide (Ta2O5), containing an estimated 197 kt of Li2O and 2845 tonnes of Ta2O5, based on a cut-off grade of 0.4% Li2O. These figures include (at December 2011) inclusive JORC compliant Proven Reserves of 2803 kt at 1.09% Li2O and 136 g/t Ta2O5 and Probable Reserves of 7933 kt at 1.03% Li2O and 150 g/t Ta2O5. In March 2012, Talison announced its intention to merge with Canadian company Lithium One. The merger was approved by shareholders in June 2012 and completed in July 2012. The merger provides Galaxy with access to lithium resources in Canada and South America. In May 2012 Galaxy announced their first commercial sale of spodumene concentrate from Mt Cattlin to Chinese customers (for more than AUS$5.5 million). In July 2012, operations at Mt Cattlin were temporarily stopped as the mine had a year's supply of spodumene feedstock stockpiled for Jiangsu operations.

Reed Resources Ltd (Reed: 70% ownership) and joint venture partner Mineral Resources Limited (Mineral resources: 30%) continue to advance the Mount Marion lithium project, 40 km southwest of Kalgoorlie, WA. Both companies have received approval for the final mining proposal from the Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum, allowing construction of the minerals processing plant at Mount Marion. Mine production is expected at an initial rate of 200 000tpa of 6% Li2O chemical grade spodumene concentrate, containing about 12 000 tonnes of Li2O. Currently it is envisaged that the mining will also produce 60 000 tpa of muscovite and 30 tpa of tantalite concentrate. The JV partners are evaluating the economics of producing by-product high-grade mica and have been in discussions with distributors and users of mica products. The Mount Marion deposit consists of a series of shallow dipping, parallel sheets of spodumene-bearing pegmatites within mafic-ultramafic volcanic rocks. The pegmatite sheets are more than 20 metres thick. The deposit has total contained resources of 14 867 kt at 1.3% Li2O for a contained Li2O resource of 200.5 kt, of which 48% are in Measured Resources (13.6%) or Indicated Resources (33%). The decision as to when mining operations will commence at Mount Marion is currently under review, having been delayed due to economic and financial market conditions, and the decision by Talison Lithium to significantly expand lithium production at the nearby Greenbushes mine. As part of the 30% ownership agreement, project development at the Mount Marion project is being fully funded by Mineral Resources. Reed and Mineral Resources are also currently evaluating down-stream strategies, such as the production of battery-grade lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) and a high purity lithium hydroxide product from spodumene concentrates produced at the Mount Marion lithium deposit. The companies completed a prefeasibility study (in June 2010) into the production of battery-grade lithium carbonate (Li2CO3). They are currently in preliminary discussions with third parties regarding both possible joint ventures for lithium carbonate production, as well as the possible partial sale of the spodumene operations.

The Pilgangoora Lithium project, 100% owned by Altura Mining Ltd (Altura), has been the site of extensive drilling throughout 2011-12, leading to revised (October 2012) total resources of 25 157 kt at 1.23% Li2O for 310 kt of contained Li2O, of which 17 288 kt at 1.25% Li2O for 219 kt of Li2O are Indicated Resources. Lithium at Pilgangoora, 120 km south of Port Hedland in the Pilbara region of WA, is contained within spodumene within twelve outcropping to shallow spodumene-bearing pegmatites The company is currently undertaking a pre-feasibility study expected for completion early 2013. Positive metallurgical studies of the spodumene ore have already been completed. Altura is currently undertaking or planning further drilling looking at deeper targets as well as converting resources into reserves.