The global demand for rechargeable batteries driven mainly by electric vehicles is pushing the demand for lithium. Current prices are high, and for lithium miners speed is the number one priority for utilising this window of opportunity. Early collaboration and testing with the equipment supplier leads to lower CAPEX and faster time to market.
We are on the brink of the electric vehicle’s era. Electric vehicles need rechargeable batteries, and rechargeable batteries need battery grade lithium. Despite a small dip this year, this demand for lithium has already more than tripled prices over the last five years, and according to sources like Stormcrow Capital and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, the demand for lithium will continue to increase significantly during the next decade.
For the mining industry, this means that there is a wide-open window of opportunity to make good money on lithium. There is also wide-spread agreement in the industry that it will not last forever.
“There is a race to get these projects off the ground, and time-to-market is overriding all other factors when we speak to customers about opening up new facilities,” says Mark Mulligan, Process Line Manager in FLSmidth.
The right tests speed up the process
One way to speed up the process of designing and opening a lithium facility is to do the right testing of your material.
“Some miners take a traditional approach and go to commercial laboratories. But those tests are not sufficient - especially for pyro - for the technology and equipment design needed to build a high-performance facility,” says Mulligan.
At its test centres in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, both in USA, FLSmidth has best-in-class testing capabilities to test both brine and hard rock lithium sources. Testing here includes minerals testing and pyro-processing testing for designing the optimal facility.“In all humbleness, our testing capabilities are amazing. Our engineers understand the industry and can do these tests quickly. Based on the tests, they design the optimal process flowsheet, plant design and plant layout. It especially provides value when our customers approach us early in the process," Mulligan emphasises.
The earlier we can cooperate, the quicker the projects can move, and the better the plant design can be. This means lower CAPEX and faster time to market.
Providing expertise in a new field
The lithium industry is dominated by four large players: Albemarle, SQM, FMC, and Sichuan Tianqi Lithium. The rising demand and the forecast for the next decade have sparked an expansion of plants from the major players as well as a large increase in the number of junior companies trying to gain a foothold in the market.
As supplier of a full flowsheet for lithium facilities, FLSmidth is feeling this demand from both existing and new customers.“Lithium is a young industry. It is not like copper or gold, where you can find people with 40 years of experience," says Mulligan.
It is harder to attract an experienced talent pool to run a lithium facility, so to reduce their risks, our customers look for partners with reliable technology and technical capabilities to help them.
Despite the young age of the industry, FLSmidth has more than 20 years of experience with specific hydroprocessing in lithium facilities. For other processes, the company replicates process equipment from other commodities and make modifications to meet the specific needs.
“Lithium is in many ways similar to the adjacent industries in which we have operated for more than 130 years. Especially due to our test work, we are able to make quick modifications and define the operating parameters in our equipment needed to separate the lithium from the impurities,” he says.
To help customers get up to speed, FLSmidth also keeps a database of previous projects allowing the company to replicate flowsheets and settings. Perhaps even more importantly, it gives the company a great understanding of the equipment’s performance under various circumstances.
“This means that we help customers optimise equipment and production. Being a life-cycle partner, we have assisted Albemarle and FMC with removal of bottlenecks and increased throughput quality in existing plants. Our database also means that we know the maintenance requirements of our equipment, so our customers can avoid unplanned stops,” says Mulligan.
Whether or not there will be unplanned stops before we enter the electrical vehicle era depends partly on the researchers across the globe working on improving battery life. Currently, there are no signs that the demand for lithium will decrease during the next decade, and to Mulligan and FLSmidth this means an opportunity to help existing and new customers utilise this window of opportunity.
“Investors in new projects appreciate our proven technology and that they can rely on one partner to provide the testing, the equipment, the commissioning and the service and maintenance. Existing customers have already acknowledged that this reduces costs and risks and expedites the process execution,” he says.
Two primary methods for lithium - brine evaporation and hard rock processing
Lithium brine conversion
The extraction of lithium from brines involves the pumping of salt-rich waters to the surface and into a series of evaporation ponds, where solar evaporation takes place over several months. Once the lithium chloride in the ponds reaches its optimum concentration, it is pumped to a recovery plant where extraction and filtering remove any unwanted minerals. Sodium carbonate treatment converts the lithium chloride to lithium carbonate, which is then filtered and dried. While startup costs can be high for lithium brine conversion and the process is somewhat slow, operational costs for this process are typically low.
Spodumene ores are typically consolidated from ore comprising 1–1.5% Li20 to a concentrate of about 6–6.5% Li20. To achieve this, the ore passes through a typical concentrator-type plant, flowing from crushing and grinding, to gravity separation and DMS, to flotation, and then to the final dewatering of the concentrate. While spodumene concentration enjoys lower startup costs and quicker processing time to gain greater amounts of concentrates than brine conversion, the operational costs can be higher due to the cost of mining and energy consumption.