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Canadians Set to Tap Arkansas LithiumLock Icon

6 min read

Robert Mintak’s pipe dream is now in the pipeline.

The Canadian’s company, Standard Lithium Ltd., broke ground last week on a pilot plant in El Dorado, a key step toward a unique vision of pulling battery-grade lithium from a saltwater sea beneath south Arkansas.

The plant will test a proprietary extraction technique bolting onto the region’s existing brine industry infrastructure, isolating lithium carbonate for use in electric cars, cellphones and renewable-energy storage systems.

“The buildout schedule, if we can maintain it, is a fast track to production,” the Vancouver-based CEO told Arkansas Business last week. “We’ve 90-percent completed the pilot plant, demonstrated the resource and met our economic threshold, so the key is to demonstrate that the process recovers lithium and that the operating costs are in line based on the results of real-world testing.”

The company expects to ship its Canadian-built demonstration plant to Arkansas this month in segments. The modules will be attached to pipes carrying byproduct water from a bromine facility owned by Lanxess, Standard’s partner in the lithium project. Lanxess, the global chemical giant based in Cologne, Germany, extracts bromine — an ingredient in fire retardants — from the brine.

Zeton Inc. of Burlington, Ontario, which makes pilot plants for petroleum and chemical companies, built Standard Lithium’s demonstration facility. “It’s right in their wheelhouse,” Mintak said. The plant “uses a solid sorbent material” to selectively extract lithium from brine that Lanxess has already stripped of salt and bromine.

The groundbreaking followed a positive late-June report on lithium concentration in the Smackover brine stream, an underground ocean that provides 40 million cubic meters of mineral-rich water a year for bromine operations, which inject used water back underground, according to the Arkansas Oil & Gas Commission.

“The size of the resource increased for the Lanxess project,” Mintak said Tuesday before boarding a plane to Germany.

‘Confidence Higher’

“We’re one level of confidence higher on the resource numbers, and our operating costs were attractive. As for the demonstration plant, it should be completed in three weeks.”

Mintak planned a trip to Zeton’s headquarters near Toronto in mid-July to see final progress before the 80-foot-by-80-foot, 33-foot-tall plant is disassembled. “We’ll be starting to ship it to Arkansas in the third or fourth week of July,” he said. “It will be assembled, tested and commissioned on an October-November timeline.”

Mintak said South Arkansas was the only place in the world fit for testing Standard’s process, the domain of Standard Lithium President and COO Andy Robinson.

He said in a company statement that Standard’s “disciplined development strategy” is paying off. “We are separating ourselves from our peers by partnering with a global chemical company with real operational experience, deploying demonstration-scale proof-of-concept technology at an operating brine-processing plant, and removing financing and off-take risks through our joint venture strategy. Groundbreaking at the site is a key step in realizing our rapid development timelines.”

Milam Construction of El Dorado is general contractor for the one-acre plant site, said Ross Lewis, Standard Lithium’s senior site manager. “The main pilot plant will be 80 feet by 80 feet, and there will be paving around it and an office control room, basically a double-wide, 24 by 28 feet.” An onsite lab trailer is also in the mix.

The site is being leveled and graded for foundations and concrete slabs that will house the industrial-scale demonstration plant. Hunt Guillot & Associates LLC of Ruston, Louisiana, which handled all the civil engineering and utility connection work, is overseeing the on-site project. HGA will also supervise installing and connecting the modular demonstration plant.

Standard Lithium has hired Bruce Seitz as plant manager, and a news release from the company said he would oversee “all enabling and installation work.” The company expects the pilot plant to be commissioned in October or November.

Applause Near and Far

Demand for lithium is growing with the electric car market, and the U.S. government has listed the element as a mineral critical to national security, Mintak said.

“Breaking ground at our El Dorado site represents a major achievement,” Mintak said, mentioning lithium’s rising profile in national security circles. “We anticipate our project and progress will be keenly watched as lithium has taken on significant political interest with the White House 2017 executive order and subsequent pending legislation aimed to boost domestic supplies of critical minerals.”

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Lanxess CEO Matthias Zachert discussed the lithium project in a conference call after his company’s quarterly statement in May, as well as in a keynote speech to investors. “The project is doing well,” he told listeners to the conference call. “Everything that we are seeing right now is running according to plan … It’s important to look at the extraction results, and so far as the pilot plant is concerned we think this will be up and running, but then of course the purification grades of lithium are important. They determine eventually the price you can get in the market.”

He said Lanxess will continue to update shareholders on the project’s progress.

Local officials also cheered.

“Southwest Arkansas has a brine reservoir, we’ve got low-cost power, a workforce already in place,” said Bill Luther, president and CEO of the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce. “That’s what attracted them here.”

Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado and state Land Commissioner Tommy Land pledged support for the project in a conference call with Standard Lithium’s principals a month ago, Luther said, noting that beyond batteries and pharmaceuticals, lithium carbonate is used in making glass and ceramics.

“When commercial production begins, I envision downstream users of lithium carbonate being recruited to our state and locating in our area,” Luther continued. “Standard Lithium is going all around the world communicating what they’re doing, and Silicon Valley is very much aware of this project and its location in Arkansas.”

For years after oil was discovered in the Smackover Formation a century ago, brine was a bothersome byproduct. Then chemists discovered bromine in the brine, and the industry now employs close to 1,000 Arkansans. For decades, the state produced all bromine in the U.S., an industry now worth some $800 million a year. Bromine is “the leading mineral commodity, in terms of value, produced in Arkansas,” the Arkansas Geological Survey said.

“Arkansas has cheap electricity,” Mintak said in an interview last year, “much cheaper than in alternative sites like Chile or the high Andes of Argentina. There are also minimal permitting risks in Arkansas, which we see as a great state for doing business, and the only place that we could make this project work.”

In last week’s conversation, Mintak said Standard Lithium is striking while lithium is hot. “This wasn’t a decade from start to groundbreaking,” he said. “We’ve done all of this in under two years.”

McKinsey & Co., a New York consultancy, expects more carmakers to put lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles, a prospect that could increase the lithium market fivefold by 2030. Projects like the El Dorado plant will be needed to meet that demand, the report said.

“The critical minerals deficit in the United States is being addressed by legislation proposed now,” Mintak said, predicting long-term strength in lithium demand. “This is likely the most environmentally friendly lithium production plant you could have, in essence bolting on to existing infrastructure. It’s a good fit for the renewable space, and for Lanxess it’s another value added to an existing industry.”

A mix of teams from Lanxess and Standard Lithium will optimize the pilot plant, Mintak said. “Arkansas is absolutely the best place to work,” he said. “We’ve been blown away at every step by the area, the state’s business approach and its excellent supply of highly skilled people.”

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