All images: Tianqi Lithium Australia
By Elizabeth Fabri
WITH construction of the newly approved Kwinana lithium processing plant off to a flying start, discussion surrounding a subsequent expansion at the nearby Greenbushes mine has the WA lithium industry bullish for the future.
There is no denying 2016 was a watershed year for lithium.
Improved investor sentiment coupled with a hike in prices has seen the commodity climb as interest in battery technology soared.
While many projects have sprung up across WA, government approval of Tianqi Lithium Australia’s $400 million Kwinana lithium plant in September was ‘the icing on the cake’, and was expected to generate up to 500 construction jobs and more than 115 full time production positions.
Once operational in 2018, the project would process spodumene concentrate from Talison Lithium’s Greenbushes mine, and produce up to 24,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) of lithium hydroxide.
The product would be exported overseas for use in the manufacture of lithium ion batteries for electric cars and home storage systems; the two biggest growth areas in battery usage.
Tianqi Lithium Australia general manager Phil Thick said the plant was already set to become a significant contributor to the State economy.
“For decades WA has relied heavily on mining to drive the state economy,” Mr Thick said.
“Nearly all mining activity has been primary mining with only minimal processing.
“WA has a reputation for ‘digging rocks out of the ground and sending them overseas for other countries to add value to’.
“Attempts to develop processing downstream of mining have been mostly unsuccessful, so this is a great opportunity to reverse that history.
“Importantly, the batteries ultimately produced are key components of the new energy world, which helps the environment and our planet.”
As a subsidiary of Tianqi Lithium Corporation, Tianqi Lithium Australia was backed by the world’s largest lithium chemicals producer from spodumene minerals.
Its Kwinana project would add to the corporation’s existing plants in China, as well as its 51 per cent interest in Talison’s Greenbushes mine.
Tianqi chose to build the plant in WA for a number of reasons; chiefly to be in close promixity to its primary supplier, Greenbushes mine.
“There was certainly consideration a number of options, including building the plant in China, where Tianqi already has two major plants,” Mr Thick said.
“Building the plant here in WA will create construction and production jobs; it adds value to the minerals before they are exported; it encourages innovation and the production process is safe and environmentally sound.
“There was also a desire to diversify supply options for our customers; Kwinana ticks all of the boxes in terms of availability of gas, electricity, water, reagents, etc and an experienced workforce close at hand.”
At the end of 2016 earthworks began on site after a five year development phase.
“It is very exciting to get the green light and commence construction of this most important project,” he said.
“Roads, fences, drainage, etc have all commenced and will be finished around February when the concrete works will commence.”
West Perth-based MSP Engineering was awarded head contractor for the project and would subcontract work to local businesses.
“There are a number of large pieces of major plant and equipment that we have ordered but take 12 months to manufacture and deliver,” he said.
“These are mostly coming from overseas as there are no Australian suppliers who can design and fabricate this proprietary equipment that is key to the plant processes.
“As a result of this, the major construction activity will commence in the second half of 2017 and carry through to late 2018.”
Located 250km south of Perth and about 90km south east of the Port of Bunbury, Talison’s Greenbushes mine produces more than 30 per cent of the world’s lithium.
The mine has produced lithium for more than 25 years and tantalum since the 1940s.
In this time the mine and its processing plants have been expanded on a number of occasions to further lithium concentrate production.
The most recent expansion was completed in mid 2012, and talks of a further expansion were now in the works to keep up with the demand for lithium once the Kwinana plant was online.
“Concurrent with the board approval for construction of the Kwinana lithium chemical plant, Tianqi Lithium in conjunction with its Talison joint venture partner is planning to expand its production further in Greenbushes to meet the growth plans of both partners,” the company stated in September.
Greenbushes currently produced 65,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent a year, which was forecast to double under a new expansion.
Mr Thick confirmed the extension project was currently being considered but no decision had been made.
“Greenbushes has the capacity to continue to supply the current needs and future expanded needs of both Tianqi and the other owners, Albemarle,” he said.
The Kwinana lithium plant could also undergo a potential expansion once operational, depending on market conditions.
“The land lease we have signed with LandCorp has adequate land for future expansion of the plant and there is further adjacent land available if needed,” Mr Thick said.
“The plant is designed to allow for future expansion and this will be considered when the current project is running, depending on market conditions at the time.
“No decision has been made on any expansion at this time; we need to focus on building the plant first.”
Kwinana plant would also play host to industry research and development activities as Tinaqi planned to further its Research and Development (R&D) activity both in China and WA through partnerships with WA universities.
The strong demand growth for lithium was being driven predominantly by the high performance rechargeable lithium battery market, but demand projections for lithium are mixed, Mr Thick said.
“Even on conservative estimates there will continue to be strong demand over coming years,” he said.
“There are many supply projects in the pipeline around the world but many of these are on a much longer timeline and still have significant risk.
“The development of our plant is in the perfect timing window and its proximity to such a large and high quality resource is a huge advantage.”
State development minister Bill Marmion was also of the view, claiming demand was increasing thanks to the growing use for renewable energy storage and electric batteries.
“While Western Australia has been mining and exporting lithium for more than 25 years, this project introduces value-adding secondary processing into the local supply chain,” Mr Marmion said.
“This is very positive news for growing the State’s economy as we seek to take a greater role in processing our raw materials to produce higher value products.”