None of the major diversified miners sell lithium, yet Rio Tinto has declared itself as a potential player in the lithium industry through a lithium-borate project in Serbia. With revenue slumping in the wake of weak prices for mainstream commodities like copper and iron ore, Rio is unlikely to be spending on Jadar in the immediate future anyway. While it is not likely to be developed in the next year or two, Rio’s Diamonds and Minerals boss Alan Davies said the Jadar deposit in Serbia was “exciting” for its lithium and boric acid potential.
Mineweb reported that Lithium is an extremely light metal, has strong electrochemical potential and is a highly reactive element, which makes it flammable and potentially explosive when exposed to air and water. Its lightweight nature and more ‘bang for your buck’ chemical constituency make it attractive for use in applications (like car batteries) where size and weight are serious constraints.
Lithium comes in different forms. Lithium carbonate (18.8% concentration) accounts for about 48% of world consumption. Lithium hydroxide monohydrate (16.5% concentration) accounts for 16% of world consumption, with the balance split between lithium bromide, chloride, and minerals.
Lithium carbonate is the most marketed and useful form for gauging the state of the lithium market. There are no exchange-based prices for lithium, so suppliers contract with consumers directly.
Prices went through a soft patch in 2008/09 on the back of the global financial crisis, with a major producer (SQM) responding with a 20% reduction in offer prices which kept prices subdued into 2010-11. Market conditions have improved since then, with prices returning to a rising trend. Carbonate prices are reported to have averaged US$5,700/tonne in the first nine months of the year. Hydroxide prices hit a record high in the second quarter of 2015, on the back of solid demand from greases and lubricants manufacturers and growing consumption from electric and hybrid vehicle manufacturers.
It is found in minerals contained in hard rock deposits, lithium-rich clays, and brine flats.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the composition of estimated mineral reserves of contained lithium show 87% of the metal is hosted by brine deposits, with the balance attributed to hard rock deposits mainly from pegmatites, but also from petalite and lepidolite.
Brine lake deposits account for most of global lithium mineral reserves with salt lakes in South America (the so-called “lithium triangle” Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile) estimated to host approximately 75% of world resources. Additionally, lithium from brines is sourced from China and the US (Nevada).
In Chile, the Salar de Atacama is the major source of the metal – holding around 30% of the world’s known lithium resources and being operated by Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile S.A (SQM) and Rockwood Lithium, a subsidiary of a global chemicals manufacturer Albemarle.
In Argentina, FMC Lithium is operating the Salar del Hombre Muerto brine deposit. In Bolivia, the government is looking at developing the 9 million tonne Salar de Uyuni lithium reserve hosted in a brine deposit for production of lithium carbonate.
In China, lithium carbonate, lithium chloride, and lithium hydroxide are produced from local brines as well as from domestic and imported spodumene.
In the hard rock deposits space, the Greenbushes project in Western Australia stands out as one of the largest, supplying high grade spodumene ore for processing and production of both technical-grade and chemical-grade lithium concentrates.
Generally, brine deposits are more cost-competitive than lithium hard rock mines, despite higher grades recorded in a number of spodumene projects.
Brine deposits are developed using solution mining with brine pumped from underground into evaporation ponds. It is then concentrated, purified, and taken for further treatment in the processing plant for production of lithium carbonate and lithium chloride. Lithium carbonate is reacted with a lime solution to produce lithium hydroxide brine and calcium carbonate salt, which is filtered and piled in reservoirs. The brine is evaporated in a multiple effect evaporator and crystallised to produce the lithium hydroxide which is dried and bagged ready for shipment.
Mined ore at hard rock deposits goes through a standard beneficiation process normally involving crushing, milling, and a series of gravity, magnetic separation and flotation stages for production of chemical and technical grade lithium concentrates which are then converted into lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide.