Lithium: Are spodumene plant design recovery rates realistic?

Lithium processing, Australia

The past couple of years has seen the start-up of several lithium projects in Australia based on production from spodumene. As these mines have ramped up, however, one common theme has persistently emerged, the issue of processing plants struggling to meet their design recovery rates.

Based on analysis from our Lithium Cost Model Service, the chart below highlights this plight by plotting currently achieved plant recoveries versus design recoveries (linked by the dotted arrows), in additional to the projected recovery rates of 15 spodumene deposits currently under evaluation and development globally.

Spodumene recovery rates versus process feed grade

Spodumene recovery rates versus process feed grade

Source: Roskill — Lithium Cost Model Service

Roskill View

Spodumene recovery rates can be impacted by several factors, including ore grade and mineralogy, along with the amount of deposit weathering/presence of slimes and concentrations of associated gangue minerals such as feldspar, quartz and mica, not to mention plant design. Whilst issues with projects ramping-up to design recoveries are not uncommon in the mining sector, within lithium the problem appears common and at several of the longer-standing start-ups has persisted.

This issue is perhaps not surprising given the limited number of lithium operations that have been in production historically, meaning industry expertise in designing these plant flowsheets is limited and working analogous from which to benchmark a plant design and lab-based recovery rates are scant. As such, it’s conceivable that some of these projects might not reach their design recovery rates.

Furthermore, many of the technical reports for projects currently under development put forward recovery rates above 75%, which is notably higher than many of the rates currently being realised and makes their validity questionable.

Roskill’s NEW Lithium Market Outlook to 2028 report and NEW Greenfield Battery Raw Material Projects for the 2020s report were published in June/July 2019. Roskill’s Lithium cost model can be ordered here.

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This article was written by Oliver Heathman. Please get in touch below if you wish to discuss further:

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