South Korea's Posco has developed a chemical lithium extraction technology that reduces recovery time from around 12 months to just eight hours.
The technology, which was developed by Posco's own research unit, also increases the lithium recovery rate from a maximum of 50% using traditional evaporation ponds to more than 80%, Posco said.
The lithium carbonate produced is more than 99.9% pure, according to the company.
The technology was presented on Tuesday at a pilot plant in Chile's northern region III where Posco is planning to develop the Maricunga lithium-potash project with South-America based Li3 Energy (OTCBB: LIEG).
The capacity of the pilot plant is 20t/y of lithium carbonate, and the technology can also be used to separately extract magnesium, calcium, potassium and boron, among others.
The technology is still being worked on and is one step away from large-scale development, according to Posco president and CTO Ohjoon Kwon. "Posco is actively advancing negotiations with Latin American companies that have brine projects," he said.
LITHIUM IN CHILE
Current regulations for lithium development in Chile are complicated as the mineral was declared strategic in 1986 when studies for the use of lithium in nuclear power were being carried out. The only companies authorized to mine lithium in the country are local miner SQM (NYSE: SQM)and Sociedad Chilena del Litio (SCL), a wholly owned subsidiary of Rockwood Lithium of the US. Both were granted concessions before lithium was declared strategic.
State copper producer Codelco also owns lithium concessions in the Maricunga and Pedernales salt lakes in northern region II, which were also granted before lithium became a strategic mineral. Codelco has decided to enter the lithium business through an operating partner.
Last year, the Chilean government attempted to bypass this legislative obstacle by launching a tender for special lithium contracts (CEOLs), but the process was canceled after irregularities came to light. Li3 has an ongoing case against the state for its handling of the process.
The Posco Consortium, led by Li3 and Posco, came in second place in the tender. SQM came first with a 19.3bn-peso (US$40.2mn) offer.
The failure of the tender together with political and civil opposition towards the awarding of lithium concessions has made the legal path towards its development in Chile very uncertain.
If regulations do not change, Li3 Energy is considering a potassium-only option for Maricunga, Saenz told BNamericas.
"We are working right now on preliminary studies... and have done an internal review that shows an economic potash project," Saenz said, adding that capex would be about US$90mn to produce around 90,000t/y of potash.
The company is also looking into producing potassium nitrate and is talking to nitrate producers in the north of Chile for a joint project, according to the executive.
Maricunga is owned by Li3 and Posco is a 27% shareholder of Li3. The project has total resources of 663,264t of lithium carbonate and 1.63Mt of potash.