Australia is leading the charge with predictions that we will become one of the world’s premium lithium producing jurisdiction.
The Lightness of Being
As a metal, lithium is unique. “It’s so soft at room temperature that you can cut it with a knife, it’s so light and its density is so low that it floats in water,”1 explains Dr Amy Heffernan, an analytical chemist at Melbourne’s The Florey Institute of Neursoscience and Mental Health. “And yet when you alloy it with something else, it gets strong. Lithium alloys have been explored for use in aircraft manufacturing but their biggest use is the batteries.”
The ability of lithium to store energy economically is the reason why it’s the favoured metal for powering electric cars, laptops and our smartphones.
Lithium is versatile. It was first used in medicine in a salt form to treat mental illness. Heffernan adds, “The first recipe of 7Up included lithium. They kept it in the soft drink up until 1950.”
Australia has abundant reserves of lithium together with the other metals required for battery production including cobalt, manganese, vanadium, nickel, copper, tin and rare earths. In fact, Western Australia has been dubbed lithium valley, as the world’s biggest deposit is located in the state.
Not all lithium is created equal and not all lithium is mined the same way. There are two significant sources of lithium in the world: Lithium Brines and Lithium-Cesium Tantalum Pegmatites (hard rock). Australia falls in the second category. Our deposits are in high demand as they are more evenly geographically distributed and less dependent on a changing climate.
In a recent interview with Sam Bennett, our Director of Resources for Australia, we discussed the fast growth of Australia’s emerging lithium industry and why we are well placed to capitalise on this for our clients and the local communities in which we operate.
“As a country, we are playing a leading role in the development and application of lithium to transform the way we power our homes and communities,” says Mr Bennett. “This can be seen in South Australia, where the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery was built by Tesla last year in response to the power failure suffered by the state in 2016 – to help improve grid stability in adverse weather conditions. The battery is housed at the Hornsdale Wind Farm, a project on which we acted as Independent Technical Advisor.
“In addition to this, we are working on the Mt Holland Project in Western Australia, which aims to deliver a long-life vertically-integrated lithium mine-to-delivery operation – the first of its kind. Our scope is to manage the Definitive Feasibility Study and provide program management services for the execution phase.
“The community benefits of this project are compelling as the vertical model approach drastically changes the way lithium is processed, by drawing on resources beyond primary lithium chemicals. This means a larger number of products can be developed from lithium. In addition, towards the end of the cycle, the battery can be used multiple times, increasing sustainability outcomes while reducing operational costs.
“Overall, there is a strong opportunity for lithium production which is driven by the increasing appetite for refined lithium products.”
Lithium forms part of the battery used to power our phones.
Our Role in Powering Communities
“This is an exciting time for the minerals mining sector in Australia,” adds Mr Bennett. “We are working with key proponents in this space to break the waste cycle and promote sustainable battery production.”
According to Roskill, a London-based consultancy agency, global demand for lithium is set to grow exponentially. The mine supply of refined lithium is expected to total over 270,000t Lithium Carbon Equivalent (LCE) in 2018. Roskill predicts that by 2027 this will increase by over 160 percent, while refined supply forecasted to more than treble to 900,000t LCE.
“Australia’s current state grid, geography and meteorology puts us in pole position to benefit from diverse renewable energy solutions which are supported by battery energy storage assets,” adds Mr Bennett. “That’s a real game changer for us, particularly where decentralisation has its merits, and we look to new technologies to build energy systems of the future.”
Western Australian Minister Bill Johnston, whose portfolio includes Mines and Petroleum sees lithium as a technology story. He says, “We can apply our strengths from mining into further processing of battery materials. We have the skilled workforce to support the processing and chemical industry that battery manufacturing needs, as well as high environmental, labour and work health and safety standards and good relationships with Indigenous communities. All of this is increasingly important to global companies that demand ethical supply chains.”2
Where to Next?
“We have world-class resources as well as the expertise and technology to mine, refine/process and apply lithium to power the communities in which we live and work, and help them thrive for generations to come,” concludes Mr Bennett.
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1, 2 The Light Fantastic: Qantas Traveller Magazine December 2018