Lithium Australia (ASX:LIT) has revealed a processing breakthrough which the company says will not only revolutionise lithium production for newly mined ore but will also unlock the value of lithium minerals discarded in the past.
LIT's shares should open higher on the news.
The hydrometallurgical process, called Sileach, enables the recovery of lithium from spodumene, the primary source of hard-rock lithium production.
The Sileach process is readily adaptable to other silicate minerals also and has been developed to reduce the cost of producing lithium chemicals from materials that have traditionally been roasted, with very high energy costs, to recover the lithium.
LIT said that independent laboratory tests of the Sileach process had achieved lithium extractions, from alpha spodumene, of up to 92% in four hours.
For producers, Sileach has the potential to release the value from stranded lithium silicate deposits – those deposits quarantined by sub-economic grades.
The Sileach process has the ability to transform low-grade spodumene occurrences into viable ore as, due to lower projected operating costs, it is less sensitive to feed grade.
This will result in lower cut-off grades for resource calculations, expansion of existing resources without the requirement for further drilling, and greater recovery of metal inventories.
As the lithium is precipitated from solution in the Sileach process, all impurities in lithium silicate feed can be rejected during the production of lithium chemicals.
Spodumene, and other silicates, in which impurity concentrations would otherwise render them unmarketable, can now be considered viable process feed.
LIT's key projects
LIT recently signed a binding joint venture agreement with Toronto listed Alix Resources (TSX:AIX) to explore in the world’s largest lithium clay province in Sonora, Mexico.
The addition of a Mexican JV to the mix in recent weeks now extends the company’s reach to a third continent.
This follows LIT establishing a presence in the greisen deposits of Europe through its relationship with European Metals Holdings (ASX:EMH) and is already working with Pilbara Minerals (ASX:PLS) in the Pilgangoora lithium hotspot in Western Australia.
Also in WA, LIT has its Yilgarn Craton projects and in Europe, the Cinovec project in the Czech Republic.
Lithium carbonate prices have more than doubled in the past few months, from $US7700 a tonne to more than $US16,000 a tonne.
The price increase has bumped up the share prices of companies in the lithium exploration and production space, including that of LIT, which has more than doubled since September 2015.
Lithium is one of the key inputs into battery units to power both vehicles and homes.
Adrian Griffin, managing director for LIT, said the Sileach process was potentially to the lithium industry what froth flotation was to the base metals industry.
“In the early 1900s, three out of every four tonnes of ore unearthed from Broken Hill went to waste dumps because the lead could not be separated from the zinc.
"The massive dumps would have entombed the mines heralding the end of production, had it not been for the advent of froth flotation.
“Hard-rock lithium faces a similar dilemma with energy-intensive processes dictating what can and can’t be economically processed. Only high-grade spodumene concentrates are viable under such conditions."
The low-grade materials, be they spodumene or mica have, in the past, been destined for the waste dumps.
The Sileach process can change that by producing a cost-effective means of processing lower grade, or hitherto difficult to treat materials.
Griffin added that Sileach would not only provide a commercial opportunity for newly mined materials, but will also unlock the value of lithium minerals discarded in the past.
“There is no shortage of lithium deposits or concentrating plants in the world but there is a massive shortage of lithium carbonate and hydroxide plants and Lithium Australia is focused on filling that gap with its leading edge environmentally friendly processing technologies,” he said.
The ramifications of LIT's Sileach™ process are broad if the process can extract value from stranded lithium silicate deposits, previously quarantined by sub-economic grades due to high operating costs.
It continues the string of advances made by LIT in recent months, most recently exclusive access to a technology that opens a door for commercialisation from producing lithium chemicals from spodumene without roasting.
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