LA Private

Pilbara Minerals’ shocking success: Electrifying the lithium journey down under

The action continues for Pilbara Minerals (ASX:PLS), which yesterday confirmed a major testing of the waters in the upgrading of its lithium ores.

A week ago, the company dispelled a lot of the gloom around its share price with better-than-expected production figures for its spodumene (which offset the much-forecast price fall) and another quarter where hundreds of millions of dollars in cash rolled in from exports.

Buried in the quarterly report was an expression of confidence in a looming decision on its much-anticipated plans to start processing mid-range ore product at its Pilangoora project in WA.

The impression was left that approval was looming, and on Wednesday, Pilbara confirmed that it and technology partner Calix Ltd had received board approvals to build a demonstration plant to process mid-grade lithium at Pilgangoora.

It will be five years or more before the planned trial plant’s viability can be assessed, but the proposal seems to have a lot of promise.

Pilbara says the project “aims to demonstrate the benefits of producing a mid-stream lithium-enriched product using Calix’s patented electric kiln technology, which has the potential to reduce hard-rock lithium processing carbon emission intensity if powered by renewable energy.”

Pilbara has been investigating how it can add value to its spodumene ore as it looks to grow its business, but so far has shied away from building a costly lithium hydroxide processing facility (As IGO, Albemarle, and the Wesfarmers-SQM JV are doing).

Instead, with Calix, it will build a trial electric calciner to make a lithium phosphate product containing 18% lithium, up from 5% to 6% contained lithium in spodumene, Pilbara said in Wednesday’s statement.

If powered by renewable energy, the technology can cut carbon emissions intensity by more than 80% in one of the most high-energy steps of the lithium battery materials production process.

The successful demonstration of the project could lead to future commercialisation of the technology at a time when global battery/automakers are seeking the lowest possible carbon footprint for their electric vehicles.

As the manager of the joint venture, Pilbara will handle the construction and operational phases of the project and gain considerable experience in building and using the technology.

Pilbara said the budgeted construction cost of up to $A105 million (partly funded by an Australian government contribution of $A20 million) would be split 79%-21% with Pilbara paying $A67.4 million and Calix the remainder.

“Delivering a more lithium-enriched mid-stream product has the potential for industry-wide benefits, including reduced transport of waste, greater value creation and utilisation of the mineral resource, and unlocking future assets with limited transport infrastructure,” Pilbara said in the statement.

“The Calix electric calciner designed for the Project represents a commercial-scale single tube kiln. Deployment of this technology in a commercial-scale chemical train will comprise multiple units of a comparable scale.

“Spodumene concentrate feed will be purchased by the JV from Pilbara Minerals on commercial terms consistent with market pricing.

“Pilbara Minerals, as the manager of the JV, will seek to sell all lithium phosphate produced from the Demonstration Plant on commercial terms to participants in the lithium supply chain through ongoing market engagement, which to date has shown strong support for the product.”

The ramp-up to production from the plant is timed for early 2026.

“Following successful commissioning and upon achieving steady-state production, it is anticipated that an assessment over a 12 to 18-month period should determine the technical and commercial performance of the technology,” Pilbara said on Wednesday.