The Lithium Mine to Market 2019 conference which began today in Perth highlighted Western Australia’s role and comparative advantage in the global lithium supply chain, with presentations from government, analysts and producers.
Opening sessions at the Parmelia Hilton were packed out, reflecting the interest and potential surrounding lithium extraction and processing in WA.
Following opening remarks from Roskill managing director and a welcome address from the WA Minister for Mines the Hon Bill Johnston, the conference keynote session began with a presentation from Mark Cully, chief economist of the Australian Government.
Cully gave a broad outlook on the Australian lithium industry, pointing out that Australia was like the periodic table in terms of the different minerals it hosts and produces.
This advantage was reflected by the WA Government’s chief scientist Professor Peter Klinken, who noted several other advantages WA has including:
The capacity to value-add to its extracted minerals through existing technology and infrastructure; and
Ethical and sustainable mining methods.
The number of development-ready projects, as well as the level of innovation seen in the industry, also give WA a boon towards developing a “lithium valley”-style processing hub in the state.
READ: Lithium outlook uncertain amid growing demand, oversupply and potential disruptive technologies
Klinken said that the shift towards downstream processing in the state had already begun and would accelerate as battery metals become more ubiquitous and the benefits to WA are demonstrated.
The state government’s chief scientific advisor highlighted the unique nature of this shift to WA’s economy, noting that in Western Australia “we do rocks, we do crops” and value-added processing would be a new feature to the state’s mineral extraction industry.
He said that an increase in competitiveness and an expanded range of extraction and processing techniques would further ease industry development and entice investment into the sector.
Perth a potential new energy hub
After Cully’s presentation, Tianqi Lithium general manager Phil Thick spoke about the Chinese company’s operations in Western Australia, where lithium from the Greenbushes mine will be processed into lithium hydroxide at a facility in Kwinana.
Thick said Western Australia was ideally suited to further value-adding in the lithium supply chain, with nearly half of global lithium extraction occurring in the state and Asian end-users geographically proximate.
Speaking on Tianqi’s operational costs, Thick noted that the company’s energy costs were in line with operations within China, adding to WA’s attractiveness as a downstream processing hub.
Supporting a battery metals industry in WA
After lunch, the third session of the day was opened by AMEC chief executive officer Warren Pearce who presented on policy risks and opportunities in the lithium value chain.
A report released by AMEC last year noted WA’s advantageous position in the lithium chain and that it produces all other minerals necessary to domestically manufacture batteries.
The report, titled ‘The Path Forward: Supporting the development of a lithium and battery metals industry in Western Australia’, points out that the current $165-billion global lithium value chain will grow to a conservatively estimated $2 trillion by 2025.
Australia stands to capture $10 billion of this without government and industry collaboration, however, a concerted effort to add one step of electro-chemical processing to the value chain would give Australia a further share of $297 billion.
AMEC’s research showed that 89% of global electro-chemical processing occurs in China but that Australia could compete on both cost and quality of products.
Recent sector developments
Company presentations Thursday afternoon included Pilbara Minerals Ltd (ASX:PLS) managing director & CEO Ken Brinsden, Core Lithium Ltd (ASX:CXO) managing director Stephen Biggins and Lepidico Ltd (ASX:LPD) managing director Joe Walsh.
Brinsden spoke on the costs and risks associated with lithium processing utilising experiences from the company’s Pilgangoora Lithium-Tantalum Project, 120 kilometres from Port Hedland.
Pilgangoora went from its first drill hole to production in just four years and production is now being expanded by 800,000-850,000 tonnes.
A 3D overlay of plans for stage II at Pilgangoora
Stephen Biggins’ presentation focused on processing and battery manufacturing in the NT, where Core Lithium is developing its Finniss Lithium Project.
The company completed a pre-feasibility study for Finniss in June 2018, indicating the project would be a low-capex lithium concentrate operation with globally competitive cash costs, high operating margins and rapid capital payback.
The Grants deposit is expected to generate a net present value of $140 million pre-tax with an internal rate of return of 142% at an average concentrate price of US$649 a tonne.
Lepidico manager Joe Walsh gave a talk on the company’s L-Max technology and the production of battery grade lithium.
Lepidico is constructing a pilot plant in Perth with commissioning expected in April 2019, with the overall objective of developing a sustainable, fully-integrated lithium business from mine to battery-grade lithium chemical production.