WA set to become ‘lithium valley’

Western Australia could produce enough lithium batteries within the next decade to power cars, phones and laptops across China, Europe and the USA.

Murdoch University Dean of Engineering and Information Technology Professor Bogdan Dlugogorski said WA is experiencing the perfect set of conditions to propel the state into becoming the world’s biggest producer of lithium chemicals.

The state government’s lithium taskforce and a meeting between Premier Mark McGowan and battery-maker Tesla showed there was a promising level of political will to put lithium at the forefront of WA’s mining and metallurgy industries, and chemical manufacturing.

“The scale of changes under way in the lithium industry in WA and around the world boggle the mind,” Professor Dlugogorski said.

“By the end of this year, Western Australia will supply half of the world’s demand for lithium, after overtaking Chile in 2017.

“The state has world-class deposits of lithium hard rocks, known as pegmatites, due to the size of crystal grains in the rocks.

“We have every single chemical required to manufacture lithium batteries here in Western Australia.”

Just three years ago, there was only one lithium mine in WA. By next year there could be as many as eight.

The world’s biggest lithium mine is located in Greenbushes, 250km south of Perth.

This mine alone supplies a third of the world’s lithium.

The market leader Tianqi Lithium has invested more than $700m to build a processing plant in Kwinana, about 38km south of Perth, to convert the mineral spodumene from Greenbushes to lithium hydroxide.

The lithium refinery will be the largest in the world with the target production of 48,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide.

Lithium hydroxide is the compound used to produce lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars, smart phones and lightweight laptops, along with solar energy storage.

Other companies are investing in the development of two additional lithium refineries in Kwinana and Kemerton.

Professor Dlugogorski said spodumene was the main mineral in lithium deposits, which until now has been shipped offshore – mainly to China – for refining.

“It’s relatively easy to dig and it’s relatively easy to refine, so we have an opportunity here to capitalise on what’s readily and naturally available in Western Australia and take it to the world,” he said.

“The refineries will need significant supplies of sulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide that may spur new developments in chemical production and recycling in WA.

“We are very nimble in Western Australia – we move very quickly.

“We’ve been able to catch an opportunity to produce the rocks, and now we can convert them into lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate.”

The right political climate, a highly educated workforce and very good research-intensive universities coupled with highly trained and specialised engineers, geologists and metallurgists meant the industry in WA was ripe for the picking, Professor Dlugogorski said.

“Clearly, the electric vehicle markets in Europe and China with aggressive targets set by automakers and governments for reduction in CO2 emissions drive the demand for lithium,” he added.

“The stability of the Australian political, financial and resource-management systems provide the investors with assurance of future financial rewards.”