Lithium Project in El Dorado Defies Pandemic

Lanxess, a big bromine producer in south Arkansas, has hooked its pipes up to a test plant of Standard Lithium, which hopes to mine the battery ingredient from underground brine.
Lanxess, a big bromine producer in south Arkansas, has hooked its pipes up to a test plant of Standard Lithium, which hopes to mine the battery ingredient from underground brine.
A Standard Lithium analytical chemist performs real-time tests on samples at the dedicated lab attached to the demonstration lithium extraction plant in El Dorado.
A Standard Lithium analytical chemist performs real-time tests on samples at the dedicated lab attached to the demonstration lithium extraction plant in El Dorado.

After six months locked down in Canada, Robert Mintak is itching to fly south to see firsthand how Standard Lithium Ltd.’s pilot plant is doing drawing lithium from Arkansas’ underground brine.

Mintak, CEO of the Vancouver company, has been grounded by COVID-19 rules forbidding non-essential border crossings at least through September.

Standard trucked its $10 million modular extraction pilot plant to El Dorado from Canada in pieces before the pandemic, and started producing lithium chloride in south Arkansas in May.

But COVID postponed plans to attach another test plant to the El Dorado unit — this one for crystallizing the lithium slurry into battery-grade material for electric cars, laptops and phones.

“I’d love to be back in Arkansas because there’s so much cool stuff going on down there, and because we have a crystallization plant that we built in Canada as a companion piece for the extraction plant,” Mintak told Arkansas Business in a phone interview last month.

“But when COVID hit, we recognized that the team that built it really needed to be on the ground to get up and running, and they weren’t going to be able to travel, either.”

So despite preparation work already completed in El Dorado, including the foundation and site-specific mechanical elements, Mintak decided to test and optimize the crystallization plant in Canada and ship it to Arkansas later. “We hope to have it down there, hopefully in late Q3 or early Q4, if things start to open up for travel.”

Using Existing Infrastructure

Standard is seeking to prove a first-of-its-kind facility taking advantage of the existing infrastructure of partner Lanxess AG, which has long pulled bromine from south Arkansas’ underground sea of brine.

The pipes, pumps and facilities of Lanxess, a German multinational corporation, tap the Smackover formation brine beneath Union and Columbia counties. The brine, full of minerals dating back to the Jurassic period, made south Arkansas a world leader in bromine production, providing the raw material for agricultural chemicals, dyes, insecticides and flame retardants.

Lithium extraction could eventually rival bromine production in the state, the company hopes, and Mintak says the Arkansas operation could give the United States a domestic source for a vital industrial element. Standard’s proprietary new process for filtering lithium — as opposed to producing it from mined rock or letting it settle in vast sedimentation ponds, as it is most commonly derived — offers a greener supply alternative for the lithium-ion battery industry worldwide.

Dozens of Lanxess wells pump out brine and send it via pipeline networks to plants producing bromine. After that element is stripped out, Standard’s test plant mines the water for lithium. After mineral extraction, the waste brine is reinjected into the Smackover Formation aquifer.

“We’ve been getting great results, and we would be basically just a few weeks behind schedule if the border was open and travel was possible,” Mintak said. “We’re getting results that basically confirm our assumptions … In the very near future we hope to be at a point where we can give a thumbs-up on the proof of concept on the extraction and purification technologies, which are really the most important milestones for us to make a final investment decision to build a large commercial plant with Lanxess.”

Mintak’s eventual goal is a lithium extraction facility on the scale of a water treatment plant, and he says additional plants could be added to the pipeline as lithium demands increase.

A Domestic Supply

With the United States and Canada facing the COVID crisis and economic chaos, the timing couldn’t be better, Mintak said. “It’s really come home to roost that you can’t outsource all your raw materials and your critical supply chains,” Mintak said. “You need to have a secure supply of something as important to economic activity as this is.”

Standard Lithium announced in mid-June that its test plant for crystallizing lithium carbonate had started its commissioning phase in Canada, where it was built by Saltworks Technologies Inc. in greater Vancouver. Mintak said the Canadian end of the operation is taking batches of lithium fluoride from the El Dorado plant and testing its process of converting it into a battery-quality or better chemical for the lithium-ion market.

The process is designed to produce 99.9% pure lithium carbonate, according to Andy Robinson, Standard’s president and chief operating officer. “The crystallization plant is designed to take the intermediate product made by the direct lithium extraction process and convert it into a battery-quality (or better) lithium chemical used by manufacturers in the lithium-ion battery supply plant,” the company said in May. Testing of the crystallization plant has been underway in Canada for a couple of months.

“Saltworks has done a fantastic job delivering this state-of-the-art lithium carbonate crystallization plant, especially given the complications related to COVID-19,” Robinson said. “Our plan has necessarily been adapted to fit the trans-border situation between Canada and the USA. We are able to freely transport large volumes of lithium chloride product from our operational demo plant in Arkansas up to Vancouver.” By using the Arkansas-made feedstock, the company is “demonstrating the total lithium extraction and crystallization flowsheet that we have developed. Once the trans-border movement of staff is relaxed, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we will transport the modules” to Arkansas, Robinson said.

With about 300,000 tons delivered last year, lithium is a $5 billion-a-year niche in the specialty chemical industry, and demand is expected to grow, particularly as more electric cars hit the road. Mining companies use evaporation ponds to get lithium from the salt waters of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, and Australia derives tons of the element from hard-rock mining. The other major international lithium player is China.

But Standard’s new process has advantages. By plugging into the end of Lanxess’ extraction process, it capitalizes on the high temperatures at which the brine arrives, about 160 degrees, requiring no further heating. The proprietary extraction process is faster than other methods — several hours versus perhaps a year in evaporation ponds — and the efficiency is better, recovering 90% of the lithium rather than half. The environmental footprint also shrinks in comparison, a few dozen acres compared with thousands for evaporation.

New Round of Investment

Standard is in the last stage of its proof-of-concept work to demonstrate its processes’ commercial viability.

If the tests all prove favorable, Standard and Lanxess plan to move quickly toward a phased development with an estimated capital expense of $450 million and an eventual production target of 21,000 tons of lithium per year, or about 7% of today’s global supply. A project that size would mean perhaps 100 permanent direct jobs in south Arkansas.

Standard Lithium, which is listed on Canada’s TSX Venture Exchange, is also on solid financial footing as it seeks to prove itself as a joint venture partner to Lanxess. In February, the company sought $6.5 million in Canadian dollars in a private funding round and instead reaped gross proceeds of $12.1 million Canadian. That included $3 million from two strategic investors and an $800,000 investment by Mintak, Robinson and Director Anthony Alvaro.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate the way things have played out in that the money that we required to get all this done was raised at the end of February,” Mintak told Arkansas Business. “We were looking to raise just around $6.5 million Canadian, and we raised almost double that. So that has allowed us to keep everyone employed down in El Dorado, and to keep moving forward for the proof of concept, which is coming soon.”

The company’s process is poised to disrupt the lithium industry “extremely,” Mintak said.

“It’s a very environmentally friendly, scalable and cost-effective process, and we know it can be replicated. So it’s greatly exciting to be up and running regardless of the hold on travel. Considering the global crisis and pandemic underway, we couldn’t be happier with the progress.”