➤ Vancouver, British Columbia-based Standard Lithium Ltd. plans to leverage existing infrastructure and permits associated with brine operations in southern Arkansas to produce battery-grade lithium using direct lithium extraction.
➤ The lithium development company remains on track to secure a final investment decision for its flagship project in the state in the second half of 2021, according to CEO and Director Robert Mintak.
➤ On July 13, Standard Lithium commenced trading on the NYSE American under the ticker symbol SLI. It also trades on the TSX Venture Exchange and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.
With demand for battery-grade lithium used in electric vehicle batteries heating up around the world, Standard Lithium launched an industrial-scale demonstration plant at an existing brine operation site in southern Arkansas in mid-2020 to test out new technology for extracting lithium. S&P Global Market Intelligence spoke with CEO and Director Robert Mintak on July 12 to learn more about what makes Standard Lithium's recovery process different from other lithium extraction methods and what challenges exist for companies undertaking lithium projects in the U.S. The following conversation was edited for clarity and space.
Standard Lithium CEO and Director Robert Mintak
S&P Global Market Intelligence: Standard Lithium is developing and testing a method to produce lithium from 150,000 acres of permitted brine operations in southern Arkansas. Why did you select this location for the project?
Robert Mintak: Our project is unique in that it is already by and large permitted because the facility processes brine for bromine. We've partnered with the largest brine operator in North America, Lanxess Corp., and have been able to use brine from their production wells to do chemistry research and find the most successful process for extracting lithium. That has saved us millions of dollars and years of permitting.
There is also already a substantial workforce in the community. Extractive industries are what really built this region. More specifically, where we are working today in southern Arkansas, they have 100 years of experience in oil and gas development and 60 years in brine production. They are extremely culturally familiar with this industry, so [the project] is not facing the backlash that you see in the Western U.S. or even in other places.
The reagents we use at the plant, most of them can be made in the same zip code from the existing chemical industry. So, the acids and the bases we use we can source within 20 minutes of the project. We don't have to cross state lines or go across the ocean.
What makes the Lanxess project unique compared to other lithium projects under development in the U.S.?
We've been very successful at moving the project forward in southern Arkansas to a point where I can confidently say, from my perspective, we're the most advanced lithium project in the U.S. with the clearest path to get into production. There are a lot of attractive lithium projects in the U.S., but they are faced with numerous permitting and infrastructure challenges. Upon a final investment decision, we can then go directly to the first commercial plant.
You have plans to use direct lithium extraction technology to recover lithium at a commercial scale from the Lanxess site in southern Arkansas. Can you share how this technology works and how it is different from other lithium extraction methods?
We've developed an extraction technology, which is really at the core of the business and key to unlocking the resource. Direct lithium extraction — or DLE is the acronym that the industry uses for it now — is getting a lot of attention in the media. But the fundamental challenge is that every project has different chemistries and different geographies. So, the approach we have taken is to work with the chemistry fundamentals to develop a process that would be tailored to this project so we can actually scale it to commercial production. The real benefit is that the brine operations in Arkansas are already in commercial production for bromine.
Can you talk through the various stages of developing the Lanxess project, and where the project stands right now?
Over the past four years, we went from testing and trialing 15 different lithium extraction processes to developing our own method and then piloting it. We then developed what we call an industrial-scale demonstration plant. We scaled our first pilot plant up 100 times to our demonstration plant, and we installed that plant at the project. It's currently plugged in and operating in Arkansas at one of the brine facilities that our partner Lanxess operates. The demonstration plant is fully automated and runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week — it runs as it would in a commercial installation. It has brines coming in, which we then extract lithium from, every minute of the day. We pump the tail brine back into the disposal well system that is already in place. So, it is actually operating as it would in its commercial operation. There are a lot of discussions of geothermal projects that are proposing to do direct lithium extraction. But this is the first of its kind, and it is performing better than our expectations. It has been running for 14 months now.
Can you break down how the lithium extraction process works, step by step?
So, the extraction process for this is lithium chloride — similar to what you would have in the output of a lithium evaporation pond system in Chile. The lithium chloride is converted to lithium carbonate, and for the commercial operation, that will all be done at the site. Conversion to lithium carbonate would be the initial production profile that we will be pursuing. We are currently trialing producing lithium hydroxide, so going directly from lithium chloride to lithium hydroxide. We will have a preliminary economic assessment report out in a few weeks on the production of lithium hydroxide. But the intention is to produce everything in a final product at the Arkansas site.
Who will be your customers?
Our initial customer for the lithium carbonate will be our partner on the project, Lanxess.
How much lithium do you anticipate producing and how will you be working to meet the increasing demand for battery-grade lithium?
We can re-enter wells in the ground at the Lanxess site that have been used to extract bromine because the lithium was never touched. Over the 60 years of operation, they have pumped the brine out and put it back into the wells, depleting the bromine. So, we can re-enter areas to increase brine production from the leases that Lanxess holds and instead extract lithium. We also hold additional greenfield leases, which we can develop in south Arkansas. So, we could eventually push the estimated production number of 20,900 tonnes [of lithium carbonate] annually, to multiples of that.