Lithium Australia has announced that it has been granted a European patent for its in-house LieNA lithium processing technology, said to significantly improve metallurgical recovery of lithium from fine and low-grade spodumene for use in the production of lithium-ion batteries. Improved lithium recoveries boost profit and can reduce both the footprint and environmental impact of mining to enhance sustainability.
Perth-based Lithium Australia has extended patent protection for its unique lithium processing technology, LieNA, through Europe as it seeks to build on a recent commercialisation agreement with Germany’s Deutsche Rohstoff and step up talks with spodumene concentrate producers and lithium chemical manufacturers on potential use of the technology.
The ASX-listed company has been granted an exclusive European patent covering its first-generation LieNA lithium processing technology for 20 years having secured a similar patent in Australia earlier in 2021.
Lithium Australia’s novel in-house technology has been co-funded federally in Australia through a Co-operative Research Centres Projects grant.
The company says the technology can significantly improve metallurgical recovery of lithium from fine and low-grade spodumene, the main lithium-bearing hard rock mineral. The LieNA caustic conversion process can recover lithium without roasting and also produce direct feed for production of lithium-ferro-phosphate lithium-ion or “LFP” batteries.
The more environmentally-friendly method of processing lithium pyroxene minerals has other advantages, according to Lithium Australia.
Management says LFP batteries offer a range of benefits over competing nickel-cobalt batteries, including lower cost and better longevity and as an economic bonus, LFP is currently the fastest growing sector of the lithium-ion battery market.
Crucially, LieNA can recover lithium from fine and low-grade spodumene that would otherwise land on waste piles or in tailings streams.
Lithium Australia says lithium recovery rates in conventional spodumene beneficiation can be as low as 50%. The conventional processes are neither responsive to fine feed material nor tolerant of any impurities, unlike the LieNA method.
Lithium Australia has partnered with the respected Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, or “ANSTO” and says it has performed extensive testwork on the LieNA process to demonstrate its ability to process material that cannot be handled by conventional lithium converters.
Construction of an autoclave, the main component in a LieNA pilot plant, has commenced in Mumbai, India. Lithium Australia anticipates delivery to Australia in October 2021 – COVID permitting – with plant construction at ANSTO in New South Wales to be completed by year's end to enable an initial pilot run.
VSPC Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lithium Australia, will use the lithium phosphate generated by the pilot plant to create LFP cathode powder at a facility in Brisbane, Queensland. It says LFP powder will then be used to produce commercial-format lithium-ion battery cells for testing.
Management says the company is having advanced discussions with various spodumene concentrate producers and lithium chemical manufacturers “who understand the gap LieNA could fill, as well as its enormous potential if commercialised”.
Lithium Australia Managing Director Adrian Griffin said: "Lithium Australia continues to focus on developing novel solutions to lithium processing problems. Commercialisation of the LieNA process will be an opportunity to improve the sustainability of the lithium-ion battery industry, which drastically needs to reduce its environmental footprint.”
Mr Griffin said improved lithium recoveries through the use of LieNA could enable production of more lithium chemical units from the same size of mining excavation, at a lower unit cost.
He said: “What's more, LieNA can produce lithium phosphate from spodumene as direct feed for the production of LFP, the fastest growing sector of the lithium-ion battery market, and that is a major advantage.”
"We see an immediate application for LieNA in Australia, given that this country produces well over half the world’s lithium and nearly all of its spodumene requirements, despite significant quantities of the latter never making it into the processing supply chain. The problem starts with the very nature of spodumene and the technology currently used to recover lithium from it. That problem could be solved by more efficient processing, and that is our aim.”
Lithium Australia’s LieNA technology looks like it might have the ability to shake the market up somewhat – particularly if it can transform low-grade waste dumps into profitable and saleable lithium.
Its impact on the exploration industry is hard to measure, however, at face value at least it could potentially dispense with the generally accepted view that a hard-rock lithium deposit must grade well over 1 per cent lithium oxide to be viable.
And who knows, LieNA just might start a whole new lithium stampede for those low-grade and unloved deposits that are sitting idle around the world.
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