TALISON Lithium’s owners Tianqi Lithium and US group Albemarle are pouring some serious capital into their long-running Greenbushes mine in WA’s south-west as the State begins its transition into a global hub for battery metals and value-added processing.
In early 2018 the State Government established a Lithium and Energy Materials Taskforce aimed at understanding opportunities from the emerging industry and creating a strategy going forward.
The Greenbushes mine – 250km south of Perth and about 90km south east of the Port of Bunbury – was at the centre of the discussions as a supplier of a significant portion of the world’s lithium.
“The Greenbushes mine is the largest lithium mine in the world and is an important component for Western Australia to advance further into the lithium-ion battery value-chain,” WA Mines minister Bill Johnston told The Australian Mining Review.
Over the course of the year, the State Government engaged with key stakeholders from industry, research organisations and the community to ensure they were given the opportunity to play an active role.
In July it held an Industry Consortium for stakeholders from local and international companies to discuss ideas, with results due to be released early 2019.
Mr Johnston said it was “very important” that WA reaps the full potential of the battery minerals value chain from processing and manufacturing capacity, technical expertise and research capability.
He said the State currently had seven operating lithium mines in its ranks, and the Government had committed $6 million to the establishment of a Future Battery Industries Co-operative Research Centre bid, which would enhance Australia’s capabilities in the increasingly important battery and energy storage industry.
“By expanding further into the battery minerals value chain the State will further diversify the Western Australian economy and maximise benefits to the local community,” Mr Johnston said.
The Greenbushes mine was already on a growth path of its own, with a $320 million expansion to double production from 80,000tpa to more than 160,000tpa in its final stages, with commissioning expected to begin in the second quarter of 2019.
Another $516 million second stage expansion was approved in July, and earmarked to begin construction in the first quarter of 2019, which would increase the processing rate to between 2.3 and 2.7 million tonnes per annum of lithium bearing mineral concentrate from late 2020/early 2021.
The second expansion included the construction of a new 520,000tpa concentrator plant, a new crushing plant and associated infrastructure.
However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Talison, with expansion plans muddled by a legal dispute between Talison and Global Advanced Metals, which claimed the upgrade would waste the mine’s tantalum resource, over which it has rights.
Greenbushes Shire president Tony Pratico said the dispute between both parties had since been resolved.
“I’m not aware of any details,” Mr Pratico said.
“But I think the good part about that is they dealt with it around the table and it was good news when we heard it was resolved.
“I think moving forward for all those involved, they didn’t need something like this hanging over their head at a time when their resources and expertise were in high demand during these expansions.”
Mr Pratico said the whole community was getting behind the Greenbushes expansion projects and the investments made by the company were “enormous”.
“Talison’s Greenbushes mine has been the largest employer for many years here in Greenbushes and it’s been important to the Shire because the best thing is to have local employment for residents rather than fly-in, fly-out, which leaves not only families divided but also communities divided,” Mr Pratico said.
But it wasn’t just mining upgrades that had sparked national (and global) interest.
Investments in high-quality value-adding plants linked to the mine were also building momentum, and shaping WA’s profile as a hub for downstream processing.
Tianqi Lithium was one of the first to jump on the downstream processing wagon.
In 2016, the company announced it would invest $400 million into a largescale Kwinana Lithium Plant that would become Australia’s first lithium hydroxide processing facility.
The Kwinana Lithium Plant’s first stage would produce lithium hydroxide from spodumene mined at the Greenbushes operation, with commissioning set for late 2018.
In October 2017, a $300 million second stage also received board approval and would double plant capacity to 48,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per annum.
Then, on 9 November 2018, Talison’s other owner Albemarle obtained environmental approval from the WA Government to develop a $1 billion lithium manufacturing plant in the Kemerton Strategic Industrial Area near Bunbury.
The plant itself would process spodumene ore concentrate from Greenbushes through five trains to produce 100,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide, and up to 1.1 million tonnes of tailings.
The Albemarle news caused a wave of excitement in the region with the promise of more than 500 jobs during construction, and 500 operational positions.
WA Premier Mark McGowan said the State Government’s number one priority was “diversifying the economy” and creating jobs.
“The Albemarle lithium plant is another step closer to setting up its operations which will generate hundreds of local jobs,” Mr McGowan said.
“I’m pleased to see this project progressing, following my positive discussions with Albemarle’s directors during my visit to Washington earlier this year.”
Mr Pratico said some members of the community raised concerns why the plants were not built in and around the Greenbushes region, however this option would not have been as practical.
“Number one – there was not enough power, and number two- [there was not] a [large enough] workforce to draw from,” Mr Pratico said.
“The buildings that are going to be in Kemerton and Kwinana will be where they have a bigger employment base to draw on.
“At Greenbushes we also don’t have gas, which is another handicap, so I think that was the reason Kwinana and Kemerton were selected for those value-adding plants to be able to draw on the infrastructure that is already there on those industrial sites.”
Talison Lithium also recently began construction on a new bulk storage facility at the Port of Bunbury to store lithium concentrate prior to export by October 2019.
Mr Pratico said the Shire was fortunate to have regular briefings from the mine at council, and Talison regularly held public meetings in the surrounding towns to inform residents of project timelines and community issues.
One of the issues up for public discussion currently was the establishment of a mine access road to “define the best option to deal with increased truck movements” resulting from the expansion.
On 29 November, Talison announced the Shire of Bridgetown-Greenbushes was seeking public comment on Talison’s Mine Access Road proposal.
“Talison Lithium takes very seriously its role as a responsible and responsive member of the communities in which we operate, which is why we are being fully transparent with our Mine Access Road proposal and welcome public comments,” Talison general manager operations Craig Dawson said at the time.
“We are committed to delivering a win-win for all by removing traffic from residential areas and roads frequented by the public, at the same time as upgrading an existing gravel road with minimum impact on the environment.
“From the outset we have acknowledged that the mine’s expansion, while delivering hundreds of new jobs into the local area and injecting millions of dollars into local businesses, will involve an increase in mining activity and truck movements.”
The miner was also assessing the feasibility of reopening the Greenbushes railway line, which was awaiting approval by the State Government.
Mr Pratico said Talison had been consistent “all the way through” with its cooperation with the community.
He said the company, together with the Shire, were currently assessing options on how they can open up more undeveloped crown land for residential properties so that it’s available when the need arises.
Mr Pratico said the miner also enriched events within the local community.
“Only recently they sponsored Under 12 year old kids to our local show for them to attend for free, and in Greenbushes we have a pink fun run in May of every year and the company is a major sponsor and it’s appreciated by everybody,” he said.
“The Albemarle lithium plant is another step closer to setting up its operations which will generate hundreds of local jobs.” “The Greenbushes mine is the largest lithium mine in the world and is an important component for Western Australia to advance further into the lithium-ion battery value-chain.”
The Greenbushes mine was 250km south of Perth.
The Greenbushes mine plant at night.
The proposed route of the new Greenbushes mine access road.