The Australian Government has identified a “pinch point” for the global supply chain of critical minerals, with an opportunity to develop the nation’s processing and early manufacturing stages.
The Resources Technology and Critical Minerals Processing National Manufacturing Priority road map has recognised the gap in capturing additional value from critical raw minerals, such as lithium in which the primary growth has been in rechargeable batteries.
One such operation in the process of ramping up spodumene concentrate production to nameplate capacity is the Mt Cattlin operation, 2km out of Ravensthorpe in WA and 100% owned by Galaxy Resources.
Today, while on target to reach full capacity in Q2 this calendar year, it has commissioned ore sorter circuits to extract further value from its low-grade stockpiled ore, tailings and other by-products.
This alone has netted the operation an additional 21kt of spodumene concentrate in 2020 from processing of 217,044wmt of previously unusable ore.
With the operation’s focus on treating surface stockpiles, there are plans to increase this contribution to 48kt in 2021.
Full-year FY20 guidance for Mt Cattlin was achieved with 108,658dmt of lithium concentrate produced at 5.95% Li2O.
Production, Processing And Equipment
Australia is well-placed to meet the growing demand for lithium with many hard-rock pegmatite-hosted lithium resources mainly in WA, including Greenbushes, Mount Marion, Earl Grey, Bald Hill, Wodgina and Pilgangoora.
The 100%-owned Mt Cattlin operation produces high-quality spodumene of up to at 6 Li2O grade based on its customer demand.
Since restarting in 2016, it has been reliably hitting production targets and achieved record sales in Q4 2020 of 75,336dmt of spodumene shipped a 349% increase quarter-on-quarter.
After successfully operating in campaign mode in 2020, Galaxy Resources has ramped back up to nameplate capacity in Q2 this calendar year in response to increased customer demand and pricing.
The FY21 production forecast has been increased from 162,000-175,000dmt to 185,000-200,000dmt of spodumene concentrate.
Conventional mining and processing techniques are used for Mt Cattlin with open-pit mining of a relatively flat-lying pegmatite ore body.
Mining is carried out using excavator and truck operations, delivering ore to a crushing and dense medium separation (DMS) gravity recovery circuit.
Contractors are used for grade control drilling and earthmoving operations including drilling, blasting, and load and haul.
Once the ore is mined, it undergoes a three-stage crushing process, then DMS onsite to sort into either product or tailings.
The product is trucked to Esperance Port for export to an Asian customer base, while the fine tailings are stored in an onsite facility.
The conventional DMS plant processes coarse mineralisation, with a 14mm liberation size, without the requirement for milling and flotation.
Mt Cattlin’s mining operation uses Johnson explosives, Dynamic drilling and blasting service, Lucas load and haul service as well as Galaxy’s own management, engineering and mine planning expertise.
The main mining fleet includes a 120t excavator, two 200t excavators, seven Cat 777 dump trucks, two D10 dozers, a D9 dozer, a grader (16H), a watercart and a front-end loader.
The main drill fleet includes a D65 and two T45 machines.
As at December 31, 2020, Mt Cattlin had a mineral resource of 12.0mt at 1.3% Li2O and an ore reserve of 8.0m t @ 1.1% Li2O.
Low-Cost And High-Quality
Galaxy Resources chief executive Simon Hay says the company experienced challenging market conditions in 2020 but Mt Cattlin continued to be a reliable, low-cost producer of high-quality lithium, even managing to reduce its production costs.
“Pleasingly, Mt Cattlin’s unit cash cost of production reduced in H2 despite an increase in the exchange rate,” he said.
“The cash used in operations of US$6.3m was US$29m lower than FY2019 due to stringent cost control and the moderated operational settings implemented at Mt Cattlin at the beginning of 2020.
“At Mt Cattlin production outcomes were in line with guidance and the record sales quarter in Q4 is further evidence of the lithium industry recovery which is underway and which led to our decision to immediately ramp up Mt Cattlin.”
Mt Cattlin continues to examine options pertaining to monetising tailings and other by-products such as basalt and primary floats.
Strong demand from China has prompted the operation to look at ways of selling its tailings and low-grade stockpiles.
Mt Cattlin currently has 1.3mt of unprocessed tailings and is expected to have a further 900kt of future tailings, with the average grade approximately 1% Li2O.
Mining has commenced at the 2NE open pit with work continuing for 15 months and development drilling is underway at the 2NW pit, to be concluded in early Q2.
The operation will ramp up production from 2NE to full rate by Q2 this year.
Galaxy wholly owns two other global projects – Sal de Vida in Argentina, South America and James Bay in Quebec, Canada.
Construction has commenced at Sal de Vida while the company continues to plan its next growth project at the James Bay deposit.
The company’s net cash position as at December 31, 2020 was US$215m.