Lithium: light and booming

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Friday 03 August 2018

Lithium, found in compounds within hard rock deposits and salt brines, is the lightest known metal.

Since its discovery more than two hundred years ago, it's been used in aircraft manufacture, in the treatment of people with bipolar disorder, and in lithium-ion batteries.

The demand was steady, but small. In the last two decades only five mines have been developed globally.

All that is set to change. In a world of smart phones, electric cars and bicycles and solar-energy households, the long-lasting and rechargeable lithium-ion battery is a very hot commodity.

Western Australia and South Australia are leading the way. WA has seven operating mines, with another due to come into production near Southern Cross next year.

Regional Development Australia Perth (RDA Perth) commissioned the report Lithium Valley: Building the Case for Energy Metals and Battery Manufacturing for Western Australia from Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University. According to Professor Newman, WA is the only place in the world that has all the battery metals required.

Acting RDA Perth Chair Elizabeth Taylor said that they were very excited by the report, which would “set the benchmark to measure progress in developing this potential.”

Lithium miner Neometals plans to build a downstream processing plant in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, which is expected to create more than 100 jobs and have an initial production capacity of 10,000 tonnes per annum of lithium hydroxide.

At the moment, lithium concentrate is being exported to China. Turning it into lithium hydroxide in Australia will add value here.

Pilbara miner Mineral Resources estimates that it can build two 28,000-tonne lithium hydroxide modules at its Wodgina operations near Port Hedland.

The Neometals plant is the fourth lithium refinery planned for WA, where a $400 million plant at Kwinana, south of Perth, is expected to be completed later this year. It will produce about 40,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide each year.

RDA Yorke and Mid North is putting itself at the forefront of changes in the energy sector. Chair Bill Vandepeer has embraced the challenges and opportunities.

The world's largest lithium-ion battery (100 megawatts) will be built in the Yorke and Mid North region to store energy from Neoen's Hornsdale Wind Farm, under construction near Jamestown. The next largest is 30 megawatts.