Creating Lithium Valley in WA

CALIFORNIA has Silicon Valley and, if it plays its cards right, Western Australia could become home to Lithium Valley and become a battery minerals powerhouse.
Creating Lithium Valley in WA Creating Lithium Valley in WA Creating Lithium Valley in WA Creating Lithium Valley in WA Creating Lithium Valley in WA

Ken Brinsden making his case for WA creating its own Lithium Valley.

The state already has its hands up for a proposed Energy Materials Cooperative Research Centre and it has the raw materials needed to become a major player.

There are several lithium projects on the go and the state is rich in nickel and other cathode metals too.

Pilbara Minerals managing director and CEO Ken Brinsden told the WA Mining Club lunch yesterday that the state was in an enviable position thanks to its mineral endowments.

"The more WA participates in the value chain the better," he said.

"The prize for WA is to be in producing battery grade minerals. That is turning lithium to lithium hydroxide and then looking at cathode minerals.

"It's incredible value adding with not much sophistication. WA has some unique leverage to fill in cathode minerals.

"We should be able to leverage that into a battery park."

Brinsden is a believer in the Lithium Valley concept where Perth or the Kwinana strip becomes a world leading expert around cathode metals.

Kwinana is already heating up as a downstream processor of lithium.

Tianqi is building a roaster there to create lithium hydroxide and has already applied to double the size of that operation.

Its partner in the Greenbushes lithium and tantalum mine Albemarle is also planning to build a lithium processing plant virtually next door to Tianqi's.

SQM, another major player in the lithium industry is trying to find a place to build its own lithium metal production facility.

Heading southeast to Esperance and Alpha Fine Chemicals wants to set up a nickel sulphate product for the battery minerals market.

Unfortunately, while Brinsden is keen to see the battery minerals industry take off in WA, he is pragmatic about Pilbara Minerals involvement in it.

The company's 2 million tonne per annum stage one project - it also has plans for a 5Mtpa stage 2 - will be a direct shipping operation.

"Port Hedland is not a natural place to do it [value adding]," Brinsden said.

"To do value adding you need a critical mass of chemical industry around you."

That is lacking in Port Hedland and there is no interconnected rail line linking the town with Kwinana. 

Brinsden's view is once the lithium concentrate is on a ship there is better return to be had if it is sent straight to China.

He said the company's hydrometallurgical investigations in partnership with Lithium Australia had also come to naught.

It had been hoped Lithium Australia's technology would help create a near 99% lithium product, which would have meant a massive price boost to Pilbara Minerals.

Brinsden said the Lithium Australia technology turned out to be more effective with lithium micas, such as lepidolite, than the spodumene Pilbara Minerals will be mining.