South Western Times

Labour only hurdle to lithium plan


US chemicals giant Albemarle has delivered a bullish outlook for lithium and says constructi­on of its conversion plant in the South West remains on track despite WA’s “labour crisis”.

Speaking on a quarterly investor call in the US, Albemarle chief executive Kent Masters said constructi­on of the 50,000 tonne-a-year lithium hydroxide plant at Kemerton was on track for completion by the end of the year.

“We are watching the WA labour situation closely but currently we do not expect any impact to our schedule,” Mr Masters said.

The North Carolina-based company is anticipati­ng commercial production from the facility in the second half of next year after a sixmonth commission­ing and qualificat­ion process.

Albemarle lithium president Eric Norris said the company had hoped to accelerate developmen­t of Kemerton but the tight constructi­on labour market in WA had cruelled its plans, forcing it to stick with its original schedule.

However, he said the company’s recruitmen­t drive for about 300 permanent operationa­l staff for the plant was tracking well.

The Kemerton plant will operate as a joint venture with Mineral Resources (40 per cent) as part of a 2019 deal that gave Albemarle a 60 per cent stake in the company’s Wodgina mine in the Pilbara.

Together with the expansion of Albemarle’s La Negra conversion plant in Chile, the two projects will boost the company’s output to 175,000t of lithium carbonate equivalent.

The Nasdaq-listed company is also eyeing capacity expansions for another 150,000tpa through proposed investment­s in a greenfield­s site and an existing plant in China.

Its expansion plans follow a $US1.3 billion equity raising by the company in February on the back of a resurgent lithium market, which has been turbocharg­ed by expectatio­ns of the rapid adoption of electric vehicles globally.

Mr Norris said the company was fighting to keep up with demand and predicted a shortage of spodumene (lithium concentrat­e) as markets continued to ramp up.

“That is why you’re seeing carbonate prices rise so quickly in China,” he said.

The outlook is in stark contrast to just over a year ago when WA lithium miners such as Galaxy Resources and Pilbara Minerals were cutting output on soft demand and a glut of product.

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