WA set to become ‘lithium valley’

June 25, 2018

Boom times: lithium, WA's next mining star

Western Australia could produce enough lithium batteries within the next decade to power cars, phones and laptops across China, Europe and the USA, if the political will exists to turn the State into ‘Lithium Valley’.

Murdoch University’s Dean of Engineering and Information Technology Professor Bogdan Dlugogorski says WA is experiencing the perfect set of conditions to propel the State into becoming the world’s biggest producer of lithium chemicals.

The State Government’s lithium taskforce and a meeting between Premier Mark McGowan and battery-maker Tesla showed there was a promising level of political will to put lithium at the forefront of WA’s mining and metallurgy industries, and chemical manufacturing.

“The scale of changes under way in the lithium industry in WA and around the world boggle the mind,” Professor Dlugogorski said. “By the end of this year, Western Australia will supply half of the world’s demand for lithium, after overtaking Chile in 2017.

“The State has world class deposits of lithium hard rocks, known as pegmatites, due to the size of crystal grains in the rocks.

“We have every single chemical required to manufacture lithium batteries here in Western Australia.”

Just three years ago, there was only one lithium mine in WA. By next year there could be as many as eight.

The world’s biggest lithium mine is located in Greenbushes – a timber and mining town 250 kilometres south of Perth. This mine alone supplies a third of the world’s lithium.

The market leader Tianqi Lithium, has invested more than $700m to build a processing plant in Kwinana, about 38 km south of Perth, to convert the mineral spodumene from Greenbushes to lithium hydroxide. The lithium refinery will be the largest in the world, with the target production of 48,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide.

Lithium hydroxide is the compound used to produce lithium-ion batteries which power electric cars, smart phones and lightweight laptops, along with solar energy storage.

Other companies are investing in the development of two additional lithium refineries in Kwinana and Kemerton.

Professor Dlugogorski said spodumene was the main mineral in lithium deposits, which until now has been shipped offshore – mainly to China – for refining.

“It’s relatively easy to dig and it’s relatively easy to refine, so we have an opportunity here to capitalise on what’s readily and naturally available in Western Australia and take it to the world,” he said.

"The refineries will need significant supplies of sulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide that may spur new developments in chemical production and recycling in WA.

“Canada is growing up in this space and is opening up new mines in Quebec as we speak. There are also large deposits of lithium in South America – mostly in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.  But the nature of those deposits is different and they require much longer lead time to come on stream.

“We are very nimble in Western Australia – we move very quickly. We’ve been able to catch an opportunity to produce the rocks, and now we can convert them into lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate.”

The right political climate, a highly educated workforce and very good research-intensive universities coupled with highly trained and specialised engineers, geologists and metallurgists meant the industry in WA was ripe for the picking, Professor Dlugogorski said.

“Clearly, the electric vehicle markets in Europe and China with aggressive targets set by automakers and governments for reduction in CO2 emissions drive the demand for lithium,” he added.

“The stability of the Australian political, financial and resource-management systems provide the investors with assurance of future financial rewards.”

Professor Dlugogorski said the State had top-class teaching and research universities that support the WA mining and metallurgy industries and chemical manufacturing, especially at Murdoch University, The University of Western Australia and Curtin University.

“Not surprisingly, both extraction and separation of lithium are attracting the brightest minds around the world to develop new technologies to overcome the hurdles, and to work in the new industry,” he said.

“It’s why we are bringing together executives of lithium companies with geologists, metallurgists, engineers and academics for two days of intense deliberations on lithium exploration, mining, extractive metallurgy, recycling, risk and financing.”

** The 2018 International Lithium Conference, co-sponsored by The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, will be held at Murdoch University from June 27-28.

 

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Media contact: Connie Clarke
Tel: (08) 9360 2734  |  Mobile: 0424 287 361  |  Email: connie.clarke@murdoch.edu.au
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Comments (One response)

longinthetooth June 25, 2018

I think this could be fantastic for the State, however, there is a 'but'.

All to often when these opportunities come to WA, the solution is invariably Perth centric. So, my challenge to Murdoch is how can this be achieved by centering this in the regions, closer to where the raw material is mined? Would that make basing such a solution at say Bunbury or Albany? Can either port grow to supply the support industries, workforce, etc. Would freight rail from the mines to such a port be feasible, and would there be other spinoffs from such a rail?

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