We recently wrote about how old mines are re-opening so mining operators can extract the lithium that might remain. We explained how the increase in exploration may have to do with the U.S. Department of the Interior, in coordination with other executive branch agencies, including lithium on its list of 35 critical minerals. (Read the article here Lithium Still a Valued Source, Encouraging Old Mines to Re-Open)
As we mentioned in the article, strategic alliances and joint ventures among technology companies and exploration companies continue to be established to ensure a reliable, diversified supply of lithium for battery suppliers and vehicle manufacturers.
However, there’s a new twist to this story. Bloomberg reports that rather than dig out minerals and see others abroad get rich with them, Chile and Australia want to keep production at home and profits in their own pockets.
These two countries provide over 75% of the worldwide lithium raw material supply (see chart below), while most of this processing takes place in China.
The article says that the two mining nations hope to bring in refining and manufacturing plants that could help kickstart domestic technology industries. Because the countries have the supply of lithium, they want to attract companies that could transform the raw materials into chemical components used in batteries and electronics.
According to the 2017 USGS Critical Mineral Resources of the United States report, lithium minerals form only when rare combinations of favorable factors line up.
Most of the known lithium minerals are found in coarsely crystalline granites known as lithium-cesium-tantalum (LCT) pegmatites. In terms of lithium resources, the most important minerals are spodumene and petalite (both lithium aluminum silicates) and the pink mica lepidolite (potassium lithium aluminum silicate). The main lithium mineral in sedimentary rocks is the clay hectorite….
Present and potential sources of lithium worldwide are broken down by deposit type, as follows: closed-basin brines, 58 percent; pegmatites (including lithium-enriched granites), 26 percent; lithium-clays (hectorite), 7 percent; and oilfield brines, geothermal brines, and lithium-zeolites (jadarite), 3 percent each.”
Lithium minerals are extracted using open pit mining and spodumene is the most common ore with lithium concentrations as high as 4.8% (Australia), as reported by Design News last year. The article explained that lumps of granite are crushed and then milled and sent to flotation cells, where minerals are separated. The spodumene is finally concentrated to a level of about 5% to 7% which is sent on to be further chemically processed to produce lithium carbonate.
During hard rock mining, portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzers used in mining provide assay data within seconds, allowing for real-time ore deposit modeling and ore grade control. Traditional mining sample analysis often involves a costly and time-consuming process of sending samples to off-site laboratories and waiting days, even weeks, for the results.
Whilst direct analysis of Lithium is not possible with handheld XRF due to x-ray physics limitations, latest generation instruments can be used effectively to identify a key suite of whole rock and associated pathfinder elements, namely; K, Ca, Rb, Sr, Y, Nb, Sn, Cs, Ta +/- Sb, W, Bi, As, Ga, Tl + rare earth elements (REE’s) of La & Ce
Handheld XRF analyzers can provide laboratory-grade sample analysis for rapid feedback during drilling operations, or to prequalify samples for off-site lab analysis. Some of these analyzers allow miners and geologists to identify element concentrations at or below the averages naturally found in the earth’s crust, detecting even the most subtle geochemical anomalies.
Faster analysis is good news for the lithium producers. Recently Green Car Reports predicted that lithium battery production was set to grow 50 percent a year, and this “has left some automakers planning big investments in electric cars at the mercy of battery suppliers and led to delays in some products and likely to lower production of some models than the automakers could sell.”
If the biggest lithium-producing companies become the biggest lithium component manufacturers, some products may be quicker to market than they have been.
Editor’s Note: Explore more aspects of mining, exploration, processing, and analysis in the Cement, Coal, and Minerals Learning Center.