Towards the end of our interview, Robert Mintak CEO of Standard Lithium (V.SLL), laid out Standard’s criteria for evaluating lithium opportunities, “You have to get the right project,” he said, “There needs to be infrastructure. You need a workforce. You need to access to water and reagents. You have to consider the jurisdiction and the permitting rules. Utilizing modern selective extraction, you need to not only pump large volumes of brine, you need to know if you will be allowed to re-inject the processed brine.”
Extracting lithium from brine is a well understood but highly technical chemical process. The conventional solar evaporation process developed in the 1960’s is how half of worlds lithium is produced. The challenges with solar evaporation are many, huge environmental footprint, massive consumption of water in fragile ecosystems, extremely long development times, highly inefficient – less than 50% recovery, and weather dependent. A number of companies are work on bringing this process into the 21st century, moving the process indoors so to speak. The extraction of lithium from brine then removing the impurities through selective extraction, be it nano-filtration, solvent extraction, ion exchange or a variation thereof, it is a cost-effective way that has been demonstrated to work but not commercialized. Finding lithium projects suitable to apply this type of technology on is the biggest challenge.
Everything from exploration costs, lithium concentrations, impurities, extraction expenses, infrastructure and jurisdiction are risks faced by all project developers when proposing using a modern process reducing or eliminating those risks become key determining factors.
Standard Lithium has done an end run around many of the risk factors involved in lithium brines by positioning itself squarely in the largest brine processing region of North America. The development friendly jurisdiction of southern Arkansas. The region has been producing and processing mineralized brine from the “Smackover Formation” for over half a century with really large chemical companies extracting bromine and other minerals from that brine.
It is not an industry secret that the “tail brine”, the waste brine post bromine extraction, from the large Arkansas brine operations, which is pumped back into the ground, contained recoverable amounts lithium. Albemarle, the worlds largest lithium producer, has a significant presence in Southern Arkansas and has publicly highlighted the region as a world-class lithium resource. This information plus pages and pages of drilling data, USGS reports, and more caught the attention of Standard Lithium.
The challenge for Standard was twofold, acquire a large land position and secure rights to existing infrastructure and production to access the large volumes of lithium rich tail brine.
Over a 10-month period they did just that. This past January they announced an agreement with NYSE listed Tetra Technologies to secure the lithium rights to the last large land package in the most productive fairway in south Arkansas
On May 9, 2018, Standard announced that it had signed a Memorandum of Agreement with “global specialty chemicals company LANXESS Corporation and its US affiliate Great Lakes Chemical Corporation, with the purpose of testing and proving the commercial viability of extraction of lithium from brine (“tail brine”) that is produced as part of Lanxess’s bromine extraction business at its three Southern Arkansas facilities.”
In this release, Dr. Andy Robinson, President and COO of the Company stated “This project provides the perfect opportunity to test modern brine processing technology on an existing lithium brine stream. We hope to move as quickly as possible towards deploying our Pilot Plant.”
The LANXESS bromine operation processes several hundred thousand barrels of brine a day. Its facilities have been in operation for decades.
“We spent about nine months putting these agreements together,” said Mintak. “We needed to establish the relationships. What we achieve with these agreements is a large land package, with significant historic data which we will quickly model and publish an NI 43-101 report and more importantly with the Lanxess MOU we have secured access to a large producing brine resource, add the ability to leverage the infrastructure of a permitted chemical process facility to build and demonstrate our proprietary extraction process.”
Mintak is happy to check off the deal’s advantages. “This is by most counts already permitted. The brine is already being extracted at commercial scale. There is steam, gas, water, and electricity at the site. Many of the reagents we need are already on site. There are trained engineers already working on site,” said Mintak. “We have access to data going back years. It is an amazing amount of data.”
With access to this data and with a demonstrations scale pilot plant to derisk the technology of the lithium recovery, Mintak is confident that Standard will be able to produce a strong 43-101 compliant resource in short order. “We expect to move to Measured and Indicated almost immediately.”
Essentially, Standard will run the tail brine through a demonstration scale pilot plant – which will be assembled in Canada and shipped to the site in containers – to interconnect to the existing infrastructure.
“We know we will be working with a relatively clean brine with the hydrocarbons removed,” said Mintak. “The brine comes from the ground hot, but not hot as in geothermal sources. This makes it more favorable to work with. Our extraction process runs in five stages. A pre-treatment filtering and then the brine goes into a loading stage where it mixes with a solid sorbent material that selective grabs the lithium. The next steps are washing and stripping where the sorbent is washed and stripped, and then the sorbent is returned to the loading stage and the resulting concentrating lithium solution moves to a polishing stage to remove any residual hardness. We are then left with a high purity lithium concentrate that can be sent for conversion and crystallization.”
Mintak is very confident that the tail brines will yield recoverable lithium. “The facilities on the Smackover have been processing brine for 30-40 years. Dow Chemicals produced lithium from Smackover brine, lab scale, in the 1980’s but there was no real market to commercialize this,” said Mintak. “Albemarle, which operates just to the west of the Lanxess facility has also produced lithium at the pilot plant scale. We’re not proposing something new here, but there have been advances in the recovery technology that make this viable today.”
There have also been huge increases in the market’s appetite for lithium as more and more lithium-ion batteries are deployed in everything from cell phones to electric cars. Meeting that market demand requires a company to be able to produce high purity lithium quickly and, ideally, at a relatively low CAPEX. By basically skipping the exploration stage, ensuring that infrastructure is already in place and bringing to bear the most modern lithium extraction technology, Standard is well on its way to lithium production.