Global lithium reserves are estimated to be 14 million metric tons (MT) and lithium is mined from three types of deposits: brines, pegmatites and sedimentary rocks. Continental brines and pegmatites (or hard-rock ore) are the main sources for commercial lithium production.
According to a 2011 University of Michigan study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, “[t]he feasibility of recovering lithium economically from any deposit depends on the size of the deposit, its lithium content (referred to as “grade” for ores and “concentration” for brines), the content of other elements, and the processes that are used to remove the lithium-bearing material from the deposit and extract lithium from it.”
Lithium brine deposits have gained more and more interest as of late on the back of a veritable lithium rush in Nevada, largely driven by Tesla Motors’ (NASDAQ:TSLA) lithium-ion battery gigafactory that’s currently under construction in the state. Nevada is also home to Albemarle’s (NYSE:ALB) silver peak lithium mine, the only producing lithium brine operation in the US.
Examples of other companies advancing lithium brine deposits in Nevada include:
- Pure Energy Minerals (TSXV:PE), which is advancing the Clayton Valley lithium project in Esmerelda County.
- Lithium X (TSXV:LIX), launched late last year, which holds the Sal de los Angeles project as well as claims in Nevada’s Clayton Valley.
Here’s a brief overview of lithium brine deposits. Stay tuned for our look at the other types of lithium deposits out there as well.
An overview of lithium brine deposits
Generally, lithium extraction from brine sources has proven more economical than production from hard-rock ore. While hard-rock lithium production once dominated the market, the majority of lithium carbonate is now produced from continental brines in Latin America, primarily due to the lower cost of production. That said, Australia was still the world’s largest lithium producer in 2015 in terms of mined production, and most of that came from the Greenbushes hard-rock lithium project.
There are three types of lithium brine deposits; continental, geothermal and oil field. The most common are continental saline desert basins (also known as salt lakes, salt flats or salars). They are located near tertiary or recent volcanoes and are made up of sand, minerals with brine and saline water with high concentrations of dissolved salts. A playa is a type of brine deposit whose surface is composed mostly of silts and clays; they have less salt than a salar.
Lithium brine deposits represent about 66 percent of global lithium resources and are found mainly in the salt flats of Chile, Argentina, China and Tibet.
Continental lithium brine deposits
These are the most common form of lithium-containing brine. The majority of global lithium production comes from continental lithium brine deposits in what is known as the Lithium Triangle — a region of the Andes mountains that includes parts of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia.
The best example is the 3,000-square-kilometer Salar de Atacama in Chile, which contains an average lithium concentration of about 0.14 percent — the highest known — and estimated lithium resources of 6.3 million MT.
Two of the world’s leading lithium producers, Sociedad Quimica y Minera (NYSE:SQM) and Albemarle, operate on the Salar de Atacama. On the junior side of things, Li3 Energy (OTCBB:LIEG) holds the Maricunga project on the Salar de Maricunga in Northern Chile.
FMC (NYSE:FMC) produces lithium carbonate from another world-class lithium brine deposit, Argentina’s Salar del Hombre Muerto. Orocobre (ASX:ORE) is currently ramping up production at its operations on the neighboring Salar de Olaroz.
Bolivia is home to the world’s largest deposit of lithium, the Salar de Uyuni, which reportedly contains up to 50 to 70 percent of known world reserves. However, the odds of this continental brine seeing commercial production are low for several reasons, including: the fact that Bolivia is keen on keeping its natural resources under state control; the deposit’s higher magnesium to lithium ratios, which are three times as high as those at Atacama and make it more difficult and costly to refine the salt into lithium carbonate; and the fact that the evaporation rate at Uyuni is only 40 percent of that at Atacama, which means that refining would be more time-consuming.
Geothermal lithium brine deposits make up 3 percent of known global lithium resources and are comprised of a hot, concentrated saline solution that has circulated through crustal rocks in areas of extremely high heat flow and become enriched with elements such as lithium, boron and potassium. Small quantities of lithium are contained in brines at Wairakei, New Zealand, Reykanes Field in Iceland and El Tatio in Chile.
The Salton Sea in Southern California is the best-known example of a lithium-containing geothermal brine. Simbol Materials, a private California-based company, had plans to produce high-purity lithium carbonate from discharge brine borrowed from geothermal plants operating on the Salton Sea. It would have used a unique reverse osmosis process to eliminate the need for solar evaporation, making operations more timely and cost effective.
For over a year and a half, Simbol proved up the process at its demonstration plant in California, and said in mid-January that it had plans to begin construction of a large-scale plant. However, things came to an abrupt halt when the Desert Sun reported that Simbol had fired 38 workers from its demonstration plant at the start of February 2015.
Lithium brine deposits can also be found in some deep oil reservoirs, accounting for 3 percent of known global lithium resources. The Smackover Formation on the US Gulf Coast is believed to hold an estimated 0.75 million MT of lithium resource at an average concentration of about 0.015 percent. North Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arkansas and East Texas are home to oil-field brines with concentrations as high as 700 milligrams per liter, according to geologist Keith Evans.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company or commodity mentioned in this article.
Editorial Disclosure: Dajin Resources, Nevada Energy Metals and Galaxy Resources are clients of the Investing News Network. This article is not paid for content.
This article was originally published as part of a longer piece on the Investing News Network on October 30 2012.