Lithium Extraction Technology Advancements Being Studied Ahead of Metal’s Expected Demand Surge

USA News Group / After a recent downturn, global lithium demand is expected to rise nearly 150% from an estimated 47,300 tonnes in 2020 to 117,400 tonnes in 2024. In time for 2024’s projected demands, production will be supported not only by existing operations but from technological advancements and new projects. A much-hyped innovation called Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) is currently being tested by junior miner Lithium South Development Corporation (TSX.V:LIS) (OTC:NRGMF) that could have game-changing implications on their project’s neighbours such as SQM (NYSE:SQM), Livent Corporation (NYSE:LTHM), POSCO (NYSE:PKX), and Lithium Americas (NYSE:LAC) (TSX:LAC).

Test work for this DLE technology is currently being conducted on Lithium South’s (TSX.V:LIS) (OTC:NRGMF) Hombre Muerto North Lithium Project (HMN Project), located in Salta and Catamarca Provinces, Argentina. Key to the excitement surrounding DLE’s advancements are its significant increases in production speed, recoveries, and supply security.

Traditional evaporation methods require upwards of 18 months to produce lithium, at rates that run between 30-40%, and expose operations to weather susceptibilities such as dilution and flooding. Through the implementation of DLE, production time can be shaved down from months to mere hours, and can potentially more than double the recovery rates to ~80-90%.

China’s Sino Lithium and its subsidiary Chemphys are developing the DLE process on behalf of their partners Lithium South Development Corporation (TSX.V:LIS) (OTC:NRGMF). Bench scale test work of the new technology have been completed, as results are currently under review by Canadian firm Hains Technology Associates.

The pilot test unit has already been constructed and is undergoing commissioning in China. Pilot test work will involve using bulk samples of brine from Lithium South’s HMN project. Scheduled for Q4 2020 are both the results for the bench scale test work, and the completion of pilot test work. Once the pilot test work has been completed in China, it’s expected that the unit will be shipped to Argentina in 2021.

The HMN Project is located in the same Argentinian premier lithium producing salar, Hombre Muerto Salar, as that being developed by Korean multinational corporation POSCO (NYSE:PKX). Paying out US$280 million for the rights to the project, POSCO secured its own position in the Lithium Triangle from Galaxy Resources, and is in the process of constructing its pilot plant on the project which has reserves of approximately 1 million tonnes LCE.

Through the HMN Project, Lithium South has its own 571,000 tonnes LCE in play to develop. A Preliminary Economic Assessment involving traditional evaporation methods was previously conducted for the HMN projecting only a US$98 million capex. As per the terms of their partnership agreement, Chemphys has a 100% off-take agreement in place for the HMN, while SinoLithium has agreed to fully fund the DLE laboratory and pilot testing programs under QP supervision, and 30% of the cost of the Feasibility Study.

Back in 2019, Livent Corporation (NYSE:LTHM) announced their own intention to bolster DLE’s viability, through an investment in a Canadian company also developing the technology. Major lithium producers and academics have been researching DLE technology for decades, however it’s more recently that the lithium industry has looked more seriously into the innovative technique.

Livent’s Fenix Lithium Mine is only 12km is south of Lithium South’s HMN Project. POSCO’s Sal de Vida also encompasses much of the ground around the HMN.

Much further North within the Lithium Triangle is the Cauchari-Oloroz project that’s 50/50 owned by SQM (NYSE:SQM) and Lithium Americas (NYSE:LAC) (TSX:LAC). This year has been significant for the Vancouver-based Lithium Americas, having seen its shares surge +215% year to date. At the end of Q2 2020, construction on the Cauchari-Oloroz project was 47% complete.

Progress on the project continues with focus on the carbonate plant civil works and the lime plant construction. According to the companies, all critical equipment remain on track to be delivered by the end of this year, with construction expected to be completed by year-end 2021, and production in early 2022.

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