Here is one I didn’t see coming. Albemarle has announced that it will be entering the lithium carbonate market. In case you didn’t know, Albemarle has been a leader in bromine and brominated flame retardants for some time. Economically speaking, if you want to be a bromine specialist or brominator at the commodity scale you should probably be basic in bromine. That is, you get your bromine feedstocks from underground or the Dead Sea.
Everybody likes the benefits of flame retardants but nobody likes to pay much for it, so manufacturing has to be large scale to keep the retardant prices down. The way you do that is to pull bromide from the ground, often as a brine, and oxidize the bromide to bromine and isolate it from your process stream. Albemarle has recent US patent applications for the nth iteration of their technology: see US 2010/0047155 A1.
A quick perusal of Albemarle patents failed to turn up any US patents or published applications indicating that they had been working on this. This press release must have been given special consideration in view of anticipated demand for their lithium.
Since Albemarle is already tooled up for brine work it is not such a stretch to see that they are piloting lithium extraction from their process streams. According to Specialty Chemicals, a chemical trade publication, the Albemarle brines contain 100-300 ppm of Li and sources say that they are using an exchange resin for the isolation. While the brines at it’s Magnolia, Arkansas, facility are a little on the lean side in lithium, the fact is that they are already set up for brine processing. A large chunk of capital costs for recovery have already been put in place for the bromine operation. So, it’s a matter of setting up a Li extraction train to intercept the brine stream somewhere in the Br process.
Setting up ancillary process trains like this to recover other values is not at all uncommon. According to the Specialty Chemicals article, Albemarle expects to be producing lithium carbonate in 2013.
The USGS publishes annual reviews on the global stockpile situation with economically important minerals, lithium included. A prominent source of lithium in the US is the Tin-Spodumene belt at King’s Mountain District, NC. Spodumene, LiAlSi2O6, is the principal mineral variety at Kings Mountain. Chemetall Foote, a subsidiary of Rockwood Holdings, now operates at Kings Mountain, NC, in Nevada, and Salar de Atacama in Chile.
According to Virginia Heffernan at the website Mining Markets, the cost of spodumene processing to afford lithium carbonate is quite high, $5500 per tonne of Li2CO3. Acid roasting is used to process the ore to liberate the lithium.
According to the article at Mining Markets the three major players in global lithium are Chile’s Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile (30 %), Chemetall (28 %), and FMC (19%).