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Mining companies eye Portugal's lithium deposits

electriccartopupPortugal is in the top ten producers of lithium which is increasingly sought after by manufacturers of electric cars which use the element in their battery packs and for companies supplying batteries for mobile phones..

There are now 46 applications from companies to the government to explore for and extract lithium from Alto Minho to Beira Baixa, passing through Trás-os-Montes, where Dakota Minerals already is mining the ‘white oil’ in a €370 million investment.

The government set up a Lithium Working Group last December which has proposed that a mining promotion programme is launched to demonstrate the industrial potential of the metal and the establishment of an experimental mining and metallurgical unit to gain knowledge about the mineral which will become more and more valuable as the adoption of electric increases.

A technical report was requested in 2016 by the Secretary of State for Energy, Jorge Seguro Sanches, who was faced with a cluster of acronyms all wanting to chip in, including the Directorate General of Energy and Geology (DGEG), the National Laboratory of Energy and Geology (LNEG), the Mining Development Company (EDM), Assimagra - Mineral Resources and the National Association of Extractive and Transformative Industries (ANIET).

The conclusions of the report is that, "in the coming decades, Portugal can play a leading role in the global scenario of lithium production."

Portugal will have to accept mining on a wide and destructive scale if it is to compete with Chile, Australia, Argentina and China but the government, if its oil ambitions are anything to go by, will be nodding through mining licences by the dozen and triggering an outcry from ecological associations and interest groups.

Público newspaper said that the great challenge for Portugal, as the cost per kilo in Portugal is higher than in other producing countries, is to devise a refining process that obtains a high purity and hence high added value.

As for Tesla and the chance of it setting up a ‘gigafactory’ in Portugal, if there is a lithium processing facility in Portugal, this makes it more likely that the US company will locate here.

"Anyone who wants to make a 'gigafactory' in Portugal will have the raw material right here," said Dakota’s CEO, David Frances, in January this year.

Frances predicts that the German automotive sector will outstrip Tesla “within ten years” as more and more mainstream companies manufacture electric cars.

Dakota is looking at the car market but also in well aware of the growing demand for storage batteries used in domestic photo-voltaic systems, "this will probably be a more important phenomenon than the electrification of cars."

With 46 applications pending, the government has to make a choice to become a major player in lithium production, or preserve rural and mountainous areas for future generations.



From srk consulting:

One of the few positive commodities in 2015 was lithium. Improvements in the performance and durability of lithium powered batteries have made electric cars a reality. The search for suitable raw materials has galvanised many junior mining companies to switch from uranium, gold, nickel or copper to searching for lithium.

Lithium is the lightest metal in the periodic table and the lightest solid. Its chemistry is similar to sodium and displays an aggressive reaction with water. This reactive chemistry and light weight reflect the fact that lithium has only one layer (or shell) of electrons around the atom’s core thus, it has virtually no insulation (or loss of conductivity) as other elements. This makes it an ideal battery component. Lithium batteries are lighter, smaller, provide more power than lead, copper, vanadium or nickel-zinc alloys, and they last longer. Lithium is relatively abundant in nature. It occurs mainly in silicate minerals in hard rocks often as a trace component, or it occurs as a chloride salt in brines and evaporates when associated with volcanically active areas. Lithium can be extracted from its mineral hosts by: water soluble extraction from salts; and acid leaching from resistant silicate minerals.

Obviously, the brine-associated lithium is easier to extract from lithium bearing salts. However, magnesium and chloride are also extracted. For use in batteries, lithium carbonate requires several steps of concentration, separating the salt components, purifying the lithium to remove impurities and carbonation to produce a useable high-purity lithium carbonate product. When processing calcium, sodium, potassium and particularly magnesium must be separated for product purity.

Broadly, two styles of hard rock lithium exist, pegmatite and volcanic-associated rocks. Lithium occurs in pegmatites often as attractive, collectable crystals showing a wide range of colour from white through pink to a purple and even forming gemstones such as kunzite.

Extraction begins with physically separating the ore-bearing minerals through crushing and milling.  

Once separated, the lithium minerals require destabilisation at high temperatures with an aggressive leaching agent, such as sulfuric acid. The lithium sulfate produced is segregated from the acid by ion exchange or solvent extraction before finally being neutralised and exposed to air and carbon dioxide to form lithium carbonate. As with brines, other constituents such as magnesium and chloride are removed to avoid contaminating the product.  

Selecting a suitable process for lithium requires good understanding of the geological occurrence of the element and its neighbours. Some, like tin and tantalum, can be valuable by-products; others, such as magnesium, are undesirable neighbours that need to be separated to avoid contamination.

Rob Bowell, srk consulting


See also: Bolivia’s lithium boom: dream or nightmare?

and; How “Green” is Lithium?



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