Australia’s key role in the global battery technology revolution, as one of the world’s top lithium producing countries, was highlighted this week, with one of China’s biggest lithium producers agreeing to buy 100 per cent of the lithium mined from the as-yet untapped resource at Mount Marion, in Western Australia.
ASX-listed mining group Neometals said in an announcement on Thursday that production at the Mt Marion mine – a project owned by Reed Industrial Minerals, which is a jointly-owned subsidiary of Neometals (70%) and Mineral Resources (30%) – should commence in 2016, after Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium signed an MOU to buy a 25 per cent stake.
The deal, if it reaches financial close, would leave Neometals with 45 per cent of RIM and net it $19.5 million, while MIN would retain its 30 per cent shareholding, as well as the contract to build, own and operate the Mt Marion project.
The deal also gives Ganfeng the option to increase its shareholding in RIM to 43.1 per cent by around Q4 of 2016, leaving Neometals with a 13.8 per cent share.
Most importantly, however, it includes a long-term off-take agreement from Ganfeng for 100 per cent of the spodumene – the mineral deposit from which lithium is most commonly extracted – produced by the project, at benchmarked market prices.
In 2014, Australia was ranked just ahead of Chile as the world’s number one source of lithium – the metal used in one of the most talked about energy storage technologies, lithium-ion batteries, in one of the most talked about markets.
Last year, Australia produced 13,000 tonnes of lithium, with Chile producing 12,900t. Most of Australia’s supply comes from Western Australia, including from the world’s largest known lithium reserve, the Greenbushes project, which has been operational for more than 25 years.
According to Neometals, Mt Marion will add 5,500t to the global supply once it gets to full production – which is more than China produced (5,000t) for the whole of 2014.
Chris Reed, Neometals managing director said on Thursday that the MOU with Ganfeng was an “exciting milestone achievement” for the company, as the Mt Marion project headed to the next stage of development.
Simon Hicks, Neometals manager of stakeholder relations, said in an emailed statement that the deal also highlighted the for Australia to move beyond turning big rocks into little rocks and selling them, and to instead move further down the value add chain.
“Logically, the lithium value add should be able to be extended all the way through the entire battery chain, with some vision and capital,” he said. “If Tesla’s ideal situation is to have a factory with everything under one roof and raw materials close by – well, WA should be able to supply all of that.”
Last week, Neometals was named as one of 16 ASX-listed companies to make up the Australian Efficiency & Storage Index – a cleantech sub-index that was the sector’s star performer for the 2014-15FY, gaining 31 per cent.