Lithium mining in Australia occurs largely in the extraction and processing of hard-rock deposits of the spodumene ore. Lithium-ion batteries have increased interest in lithium mining. Lithium production increased to meet the demand for electric cars. Primary and secondary rechargeable batteries have become lithium’s major area of use. Processing the ore produces chemical or technical grade lithium concentrates. Further processing yields lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide. Lithium mining companies Pilbara Minerals Limited, Wesfarmers, Orocobre Limited, Galaxy Resources Limited and Altura Mining Limited operate in Australia. Lithium uses include batteries of electronics, electric bicycles, buses, and passenger vehicles. Its use is in aerospace alloys, wind turbines, as composites with glass and in ceramics. This article discusses lithium mining in Australia focusing on lithium, where and how it is mined, who are key industry players, and best practice lithium dust suppression solutions.

Lithium – discovery and how it occurs in nature

Lithium was first identified in 1817 by the Swedish chemist Johan August Arfewdson. It was in petalite, a lithium aluminium silicate mineral. Its name comes from the Greek word lithos which means ‘stone’. There are different types of lithium which exist, and these are:

  • Brine deposits in which the lithium grade is about 0.1% Li2
  • Hard-rock deposits in which the lithium grade varies from 0.6 to 1.0% Li2O in various Li-bearing minerals 

The brine deposits are recent Li-rich lacustrine evaporites. Arid to hyper-arid climates and high evaporation rates contributed to their formation. The lithium source and enrichment processes are specific to each brine. Geochemistry attributes weathering of felsic rocks and local hydrothermal activity to their formation. North America, western USA, South America, northern Argentina, northern Chile, western Bolivia and China have brine deposits. Hard-rock deposits have different lithium mineralization in magmatic or sedimentary rocks. Its related to endogenous and exogenous processes. Lithium bearing minerals include micas, pyroxenes, silicates, phosphates, clay, and borosilicate. Spodumene-bearing lithium-cesium-tantalum (LCT) pegmatities are unique to Australia. 

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Where and how is lithium mined in Australia?

Largest spodumene operations in Australia belong to Talison Lithium Ltd at Greenbushes. Spodumene ore beneficiation uses gravity, heavy media, flotation, and magnetic separation processes. These produce technical grade or chemical-grade lithium concentrates which are market dependent. Altura Mining Limited develops lithium concentrates at the Pilgangoora project in Western Australia. Spodumene concentrate with 6% lithium oxide was for export to China. The processing stages are crushing, screening, reflux classifying. Dense medium separation and concentrator flotation yields 83% lithium oxide recovery targets. The final product transported to Port Hedland for export. Galaxy Resources Limited also produced spodumene concentrates from its Mt Cattlin deposit. Its use as feedstock for its lithium carbonate production plant in China. China depends on imports of Australian spodumene ore. In China, spodumene concentrate finds its use in glasses, ceramics and battery production. Albermarie Corporation intends to process more spodumene concentrate. Lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide production will happen in Australia. This move will ease spodumene concentrate market scarcity in China. There are many lithium compounds produced worldwide, but of note are two of them which are: 

  • lithium carbonate for either industrial or batteries applications 
  • lithium hydroxide for batteries manufacturing.

Both compounds produce cathode material for lithium-ion batteries. Lithium hydroxide is more expensive, owing to low-temperature susceptibility to decomposition. Occupational exposure to lithium occurs during extraction of lithium from ores. In the environment, lithium is a mobile element. In aquatic environments transportation of lithium is over long distances from the source. High lithium levels in soil result in phytotoxicity and reduction in crop biomass. Spodumene is insoluble in water and dilute acids. Dissolution of spodumene may occur during processing. This phenomenon is common during grinding and flotation stages with dilute sulfuric acid. 

Dust generation and best practice controls

Lithium mining generates inhalable and respirable dust particles. Transportation, stockpiling, grinding, and ore processing which involves crushing and screening generate dust. Effective dust control management plans focus on elimination of dust at its source. Dust generated during crushing and screening exposes lithium mine workers to silica. Inhaled silica can settle in the alveolar region of the lungs. This triggers conditions such as silicosis and lung cancer in the long term. The onus lies on the mining company to extend its duty of care. It is important to factor in dust suppression measures that have a non-compromise approach to air quality. Stockpile dust control at the port ensures non-exposure of nearby water bodies to the lithium dust which might end up disturbing the marine ecosystem. Haul mine roads are the backbone of daily mining operations and haul road dust suppression is critical for service delivery to meet business targets related to operational objectives of lithium mines in Australia. 

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Global Road Technology offers expertise in dust suppression at the source.  With products and systems that can be readily implemented in mining activities and into workplace health and safety measures that fulfil the objectives of the overall site management plan.

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