New boost for WA lithium production

Australia’s Cobre Montana NL (ASX:CXB) was pleased to announce new processing licence agreements with the potential to cement Western Australia’s position as a long-term major supplier of lithium into expanding global markets.

The agreements will combine Cobre’s mica-based lithium occurrences near Coolgardie, Ravensthorpe and Southern Cross in WA, with the only known practical processing technology able to extract lithium from the sheet-like mica – a proprietary technology developed and owned by Perth-based technology provider, Strategic Metallurgy P/L.

The agreements, in the form of options over the use by Cobre Montana of the Strategic technology, will run for up to 26 years.

The terms of the agreements are exclusive to Cobre in WA – a State which already supplies around a third of total annual global lithium production – as well as two other Cobre lithium project areas of the Company’s choosing in either Australia or overseas.

Mica is best known historically as an electrical and thermal insulator.

More recently, it has rapidly carved a fresh commercial reputation as a key potential source of lithium for new-age heavy duty lithium and lithium-ion batteries for transport – including aviation purposes – and applications such as heat-resistant glass and ceramics, and high strength-to-weight alloys.

Cobre Montana managing director Adrian Griffin said today the securing of the licence agreements was a ‘step change’ point for the Company which also has ongoing copper-gold exploration interests in Chile.

“The licencing deal follows our recent success in delivering proof-of-concept lithium carbonate production from micas, using the Strategic Metallurgy technology,” Griffin said.

“We were able during this proof-of-concept phase to produce battery-grade lithium carbonate suitable as a feed stock for these emergent high-tech batteries, from our lithium mica (lepidolite) deposits in WA.

“Lepidolite until now, has had very limited application in the production of lithium chemicals but we have achieved that breakthrough and have now backed it up with a long-term licence to process agreement that will position Cobre Montana as a potential future lithium supplier into these expanding and global high technology markets.”

Because of its high reactivity, lithium does not occur freely in nature, only in compounds and the production of it as a lithium carbonate, an important industrial chemical used in metals and medical arenas, opens the opportunity for its wider commercialisation.

Cobre Montana used bulk samples from dumps at its Lepidolite Hill project near Coolgardie to test a unique hydrometallurgical flowsheet providing the first practical means of extracting lithium from mica. The process is undertaken at atmospheric pressure and is largely energy self-sufficient.

“This is the ‘green means’ of producing lithium from hard rock with energy efficiency likely to make the process competitive with the low-cost brine-based lithium producers,” Griffin said.

*Kevin Skinner is a partner at FieldPR.