South Arkansas’ dreams for a high-tech lithium mining industry are looking more real this month, with a Canadian company starting designs for a large-scale commercial extraction plant, and a veteran south Arkansas bromine producer announcing a lithium-testing partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy.
Standard Lithium of Vancouver, British Columbia, has for months been testing its novel method for extracting battery-quality lithium from south Arkansas’ underground brine, and it announced Sept. 6 that it has begun design work on an industrial-scale plant near El Dorado.
Standard Lithium’s technical team has begun plotting the scope and design of the first commercial direct lithium extraction plant in the United States, company President and COO Andy Robinson says.
The project, foreseen as a plant on the scale of a municipal water treatment facility, is proposed as a joint enterprise with Lanxess, the German chemical company that already pumps brine from beneath south Arkansas for producing bromine.
“Standard Lithium keeps on delivering and de-risking our pre-commercial plants,” Robinson said. “We’ve been successfully operating our first-of-a-kind industrial scale direct lithium extraction plant in Arkansas, and we’ve been continuously making lithium chloride product for months.”
Standard built a $10 million modular plant near El Dorado early this year and attached it to Lanxess’ existing infrastructure to test a wholly new way of isolating lithium chloride, which is refined into battery-grade or better material for the lithium-ion battery industry. Lithium extraction, a $5 billion industry worldwide, has previously relied on hard-rock mining in Australia and deriving lithium from vast evaporation pits, where the brine is allowed to dry, often in South America and China.
With the United States and Canada facing the COVID-19 crisis and economic chaos, Standard Lithium CEO Robert Mintak told Arkansas Business last month that it’s crucial to develop a domestic supply of such an important industrial element. “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.”
That sentiment is also the driving force pushing Albemarle’s project with the Energy Department. On Sept. 2, the DOE teamed with Albemarle Corp., another brine producer and Columbia County’s largest industrial employer, to announce two lithium research projects through what the company is calling a “Battery Manufacturing Cell Lab.” The hope is to produce lithium commercially in the future, according to the Magnolia Reporter, which said Albemarle will work with two Energy Department laboratories. The first project, assisted by Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, is titled “Advanced Brine Processing to Enable U.S. Lithium Independence.”
The second project, in partnership with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, has an even more grandiose name: “Scaling Up of High-Performance Single Crystalline Ni-rich Cathode Materials With Advanced Lithium Salts.”
Standard Lithium announced in mid-June that a second test plant — this one for taking the extraction plant’s product and crystallizing it into battery-production-quality lithium carbonate — was being optimized in Canada. The crystallization plant, called SiFT for the technology it uses, was built by Saltworks Technologies Inc. in greater Vancouver, and is taking lithium chloride shipped from the El Dorado plant and converting it into a market-ready product, lithium carbonate.
The company sent its first major batch of lithium chloride, 20,000 liters, from Arkansas to Canada, this month. “The SiFT plant has been making high-purity lithium carbonate crystals … and is now ready to receive the large volume of product coming from Standard Lithium’s continuously operating plant in Arkansas,” the company said in a Sept. 6 news release.
Mintak told Arkansas Business that several levels of securities law govern the company's disclosures on the commercial plant's costs, number of employees and other details. "We released a Preliminary Economic Assessment (PEA), a technical report authored by the global engineering firm Worley Parsons in Q3 of 2019," the Standard Lithium CEO said in an email.
"That report considered at a multi-phase build-out approach and target production of 20,900 tons of lithium carbonate that would be extracted and converted from the current tail brine flowing at the project." The capital expenditure estimate for that was $437 million in U.S. dollars, and 100 direct jobs. "It did not include indirect jobs or the employment numbers during construction," Mintak said.
"The project has the potential to grow significantly larger than just recovering lithium from the tail brine, of course, a number of things need to happen to see that come into fruition such as project economics, performance, and demand continuing to grow as we expect it to. We have a number of hoops to get through before a final investment decision is made, and we are very careful in doing our best to under-promise and over-deliver as the lithium industry has seen a number of spectacular failures from groups that didn't deliver on their promises."