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The Lithium Mining Methods 2021

By Rob McCammon & Dana Donovick

In a recent article, we put together some ideas on how cars maybe advertised later in the decade. 'The car that uses 100% ecologically sourced lithium'. Will that be the ad campaign? Sexy women have been used to sell spark plugs so anything is possible in advertising. Let's go back a bit though. What are the ways lithium is produced?

For this conversation, we will hold off on recycling. That will play a bigger and bigger role as EV's age, but for now I am going to focus on Lithium Mining.

There are four (almost five, I'll explain that) ways the mining industry gets lithium.

Hard rock mining.

This are open pit mines. When looking at these in proposal form, look for the word 'overburden'. This is the amount of soil and rock that is on top of the deposit. Keep this in mind, after the mine is done, this overburden and rock not wanted from the milling process, referred to as 'tailings' must be stored. This means part of the land will be used to hold piles of debris. Key point is that if the the property is 100 acres, part of that 100 will be a pile of rock and debris. These operations are hard on equipment and makes this type of mining marginal. The biggest hard rock lithium mine in the world is the Green Bushes mine in Australia. Here is a good read about some of the financial troubles it experienced. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenbushes_mine When you hear the word 'spodumene' then you can pretty safely say that this is a hard rock pit mine. The advantage of a hard rock mine is that spodumene is easy to create Lithium Hydroxide with.

Solar Evaporation.

This is the common method of mining in the Lithium Triangle (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile). Huge retaining ponds are and brine is pumped into them. There, the sun evaporates the water from the brine and Lithium. The areas there get nearly no rain making it possible to evaporate these ponds. Key thing here for solar evaporation to work, you have to have both dry arid environment and a brine source. This on top of large amounts of land that can be used to evaporate the water out of the brine, this takes months. Therefore, solar brine operation requires great amounts of time to expand capacity. This is a major source of Lithium Carbonate. Compared to hard rock mining, this is much more profitable.

Direct Lithium Extraction.

This takes the same brine as solar evaporation, but removes the brine and pumps the brine back into the ground. It's new. Also, not all brine is the same, so the process has to be fit to the brine chemistry. One of the clear advantages is the lack of a huge footprint and in turn, the weather independence. This brings lithium that was unavailable to market. Also, the cost in equipment is not as high because it does not get the wear and tear of hard rock mining. Permits are theoretically easier because the ecosystem is not disturbed.

Clay extraction.

I add this. It is similar to hard rock in that it is an open pit operation, but it requires a chemical process to extract the lithium. I personally want to see the operations cost on this. The bigger operators are not just one of these. LAC for example is working on opening the Thacker Pass operation which will be a hard rock mine; meanwhile they operate a solar evaporation operation in South America. Albemarle for example, is looking at also doing a DLE operation in South Arkansas where Standard Lithium is already working with a Bromine operation of Lanxess.

There is another type but it is still not proven. It's referred as 'Hot Brine' and there are two large projects for this both are far from production. One of the projects is financed by GM and is the Salton Sea area of California, the other is in Europe where geothermal energy operations are going on.

Europe does not have much in the way of domestic lithium, so this is welcome. Like many projects, this one is running into problems. This time it is that previous geothermal projects upset the gypsum deep in the earth and cracked several resident's foundations.

My hope is this makes the different types of operations clearer. Let us know.

As always, thanks for reading. I hope this helps. Our goal at Charge Talk is to build understanding so you can understand what you are investing in. Any comments? Hit us up.

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