Pilbara Minerals Ltd, one of Australia’s biggest lithium producers, plans to build a demonstration plant in Western Australia capable of refining the material that is key to the booming global battery metals market.
The pilot plant would process Pilbara Minerals’ hard rock ore into lithium salt near the company’s Pilgangoora Project in Western Australia, in a joint venture with Australia’s Calix Ltd that uses the latter’s patented “calcination” technology.
It is part of a push by Canberra to boost the country’s onshore lithium refining industry, responding to demand from automakers in the US and Europe for battery metals that bypass China.
Australia is the world’s biggest producer of the metal with almost half global supply, but currently exports no refined lithium chemicals.
A growing number of lithium producers are moving into refining in Australia, including US company Albemarle Corp, China’s Tianqi Lithium Corp (天齊鋰業) and Australia’s Wesfarmers Ltd. Most aim to produce battery-grade lithium hydroxide, which could be sold to battery manufacturers ready to use, but none are yet operating at commercial scale.
Pilbara Minerals plans to manufacture a less refined, easier to produce chemical that would be more durable than lithium hydroxide, but would need further processing before it could be used in batteries.
A final investment decision on the demonstration plant is targeted for the first half of next year, the two companies said in a joint regulatory filing yesterday, adding that they were in discussions with the Australian government for a A$20 million (US$13.4 million) grant.
If successful, the technology could be scaled up to commercial levels and potentially licensed to third parties, they said.
Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers has asked the country’s Treasury to work with the Australian Foreign Investment Review Board and other stakeholders to undertake a review of foreign investment in sectors such as lithium and rare earths, Bloomberg reported last week.
Australia’s latest move adds to a broader push against China’s dominance of battery metals and renewable energy technology following moves by US President Joe Biden aimed at limiting the nation’s influence on key supply chains.
Canada last month strengthened its rules around foreign investments in the sector and ordered three Chinese firms to sell their stakes in a trio of lithium explorers.
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