Evidence Points to Few Supply Concerns for Lithium – Part Three

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Minor Metals, Sourcing Strategies

We are pleased to introduce Keith Evans, a geologist with extensive lithium experience having worked in the industry since the early 1970’s when he was asked to evaluate the future potential of Bikita Minerals which had, until the imposition of UN sanctions against Rhodesia, been the dominant producer of lithium ores of low iron content for the glass and ceramics industries. Subsequently, he jointed Lithium Corporation and later joined Amax Exploration. On behalf of Amax and a Chilean partner he led the negotiations with the Chilean Government to evaluate and later develop the brine resources of that part of the Salar de Atacama that had not been leased to the Foote Mineral Company. He was subsequently responsible for all aspects of the evaluation but when Amax decided not to proceed with the project, ownership passed to Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM).  It is now the world’s leading source of lithium. Mr. Evans consults on a number of industrial minerals and has written extensively on the subject of lithium reserves.

This is part three of a three part series. You can read part one here and part two here. Part three examines future production and cost considerations.

Future Production

The Chinese plan to expand brine based capacity to 85,000 tonnes by 2010 but it is known that they are having serious problems with the high magnesium/lithium ratios in two of their brine sources.

In addition to current operations there are several projects in the pipeline. Three pegmatite based operations are being evaluated, one each in Australia (Galaxy Resources), Canada (Canadian Lithium) and one in Finland (Keliber Resources) with combined in situ reserves of 124,000 tonnes Li.

In Argentina, the Salar de Rincon project is targeted to produce 17,000 tpa carbonate and the Salar de Olaroz, further north, is being evaluated by Orocobre.

In Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni, is receiving massive attention by the press with claims that it is the Saudi Arabia of lithium also it has nearly 50% of the world’s reserves and it is the most beautiful resource on the planet.  It is undoubtedly large ” Ballivian and Risacher estimated 5.5 million tonnes Li but are only one sixth of the world’s resources.  However, it has problems with a low lithium concentration and a high Mg/Li ratio that will complicate and increase the cost of processing.  The richest part of the reserve is in an area where the aquifer is very thin and the whole salar floods seasonally ” diluting grade and complicating the construction of the very large area of solar evaporation ponds that will be required.

Mention has been made previously of Western Lithium’s hectorite deposits in the western United States.  The resource contains in excess of 2.0 million tonnes Li.  Costs are not known yet and this also applies to Simbol Mining’s proposal to recover lithium from the rich geothermal brines in the Salton Sea area of Southern California.

RTZ’s jadarite deposit in Serbia appears to be extremely attractive.  This unique mineral occurs in 3 stacked layers.  Reserves were disclosed for one of them in Santiago ” 0.95 million tonnes Li.  If mined out over a period of 20 years it would produce 60,000 tpa carbonate with the co-production of 300,000 tpa boric acid. The geological evidence suggests that this deposit could contain double the currently stated reserves.

Claims have been made that if (ever) the cheap brine sources became exhausted or that demand grows to such an extent that the current producers cannot meet demand – citing pegmatite costs as an example, costs and prices would increase considerably.  In fact a high percentage of current Chinese production is from spodumene and two years ago SQM estimated production costs at between $1.80 to $2.20/lb .  A former North Carolina producer recently gave a ball-park estimate of $2.50-$3.00/lb for production from the former operations there.  In Santiago, Chemetall did the maths as far as batteries are concerned.  Assuming a battery cost of 500 Euros per kW/h and a carbonate cost of 6 Euro/kilo the carbonate cost is less than 1% of the total.  Clearly, higher costs are palatable in this application.

Finally, in situ resources total approximately 30.0 million tonnes and a recovery of 50% seems probable.  As a result of an increase in exploration activity more resources will be discovered and partly explored pegmatites will be drilled at depth and along unexplored strike lengths.  An example is the Tallison pegmatite in Western Australia where increased reserves were announced in Santiago ” from 223,000 tonnes Li in my estimate to 1.5 million tonnes.

There are a large number of additional Salares in the Andean altiplano now receiving the attention of geologists and if recovery from hectorites proves to be viable there are numerous other occurrences reported upon by the USGS.  Returning to the demand side, each million tonnes of recovered elemental lithium or 5.32 billion kilos of carbonate will be sufficient for 532 million vehicles requiring a 10 kW/h battery.  Most batteries will require much less.

–R. Keith Evans

Comments (3)

  1. Simon Moores says:

    Great peice Keith.

    Of those you mention I certainly think Western Lithium, Bolivia, and Galazy Resources will be the ones to watch.

    Obviously the big question is how much lithium carbonate will be needed in the auto battery sector – IM Research’s new report answers this for the planned car over the next 5 years.

    Certainly Industrial Minerals will be covering this, and i have a feeling the industry will be at an even more intriguing point in January 2010 when Lithium Supply & Markets conference goes to Las Vegas.

  2. Peter Ehren says:

    Dear Simon,

    Thanks for announcing the next Lithium Supply & Markets Conference.

    Most of the projects require at least 4 years to get in production, and therefore the demand forecast will be of importance for 5 to 15 years of now. Unfortunately this requires an analysis of different demand scenarios and a dose of speculations. Nevertheless the next 5 years will be crucial for lithium battery applications in cars

    The projects of interest are those who simply have attractive operating cost in comparison with the 4 main producers and the lithium carbonate price.

    Every lithium deposit is unique and their lithium production processes are complex. Every project have to resolve their independent barriers in order to be technical and economical feasible.

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