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Albemarle, Mineral Resources sign binding agreement on US$1.15B Wodgina deal

Albemarle Corp. and Mineral Resources Ltd. signed a binding agreement over Albemarle's US$1.15 billion purchase of a 50% stake in Mineral Resources' Wodgina lithium mine in Western Australia.

Under the agreement, which requires regulatory approvals, once Albemarle buys 50% of a series of Wodgina-related assets, the two companies will strike a joint venture and jointly manage the operation through a new special-purpose company.

At the heart of the deal is a high-tonnage lithium property, Wodgina, which is being ramped up to produce 750,000 tonnes per year of 6% spodumene concentrate, with commissioning forecast to start in February 2019. Spodumene is a lithium-bearing mineral.

As part of the deal, Mineral Resources is responsible for building and funding Wodgina to full production. Thereafter, the companies will jointly fund and build lithium hydroxide-producing plants in two phases, with each stage targeting up to 50,000 t/y of lithium hydroxide, on a lithium carbonate-equivalent basis. The timing of the second stage will depend on market conditions, Mineral Resources said in a Dec. 14 news release.

Albermarle is a veteran in the lithium market and brings expertise in developing lithium hydroxide plants, with plans to license its technology for the Wodgina operations. For Albemarle, the Wodgina purchase represents a significant expansion of lithium production capacity in Australia. It also has a 49% stake in Greenbushes, another spodumene mine in Australia.

The purchase underscores changing dynamics in the lithium market.

"While the short-term implications of the announcement are limited, the move reflects a growing shift towards hydroxide production directly from spodumene, which is being seen as a more cost-effective route to production," Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analyst Andrew Miller said in a recent note.

Analysts have said that in the case of lithium hydroxide, spodumene feedstock has a cost advantage over lithium produced from brine deposits. Lithium hydroxide, meanwhile, has been trading at a premium to lithium carbonate, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence data.

"The economics of this supply chain still rely heavily on the price paid for the spodumene feedstock, a key reason that several majors are seeking off-take agreements or direct investments in assets that will limit their feedstock price risk," Miller said, pointing Ganfeng Lithium Co. Ltd.'s recent move to secure Australian spodumene supply.

"This feedstock supply into China will play an increasingly important role in the global supply chain in the coming years and will be crucial to sustaining China's rapidly expanding battery and electric vehicle sectors," Miller added, referring to electric vehicles' general dependence on lithium-containing batteries.

Albemarle's expansion into Australia comes on the heels of its decision to delay expansion of lithium hydroxide projects in Chile.