June 2011    Print this article

Lithium in Québec: current mining projects

Denis Raymond, ing.
Direction générale du développement de l’industrie minérale
Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune

Context

Lithium is the lightest chemical element. In its pure state it is a soft, silver-white metal that quickly tarnishes and oxidizes on contact with air and water. It belongs to the group of alkali metals.

Most lithium is produced from lithium chloride-rich brines in Chile, Argentina, China and the United States. The cost of producing the brines is generally less than the cost of extracting pegmatites and spodumene-carrying granites using traditional mining methods.

Over 150 products containing lithium are used commercially, and over half of worldwide lithium production is devoted to the production of ceramics, glass and electric batteries. In the coming years, battery production is expected to become the main use for lithium. Mining mainly produces lithium carbonate (Li2CO3), which is then used to manufacture components such as battery cells, for which there is currently no economic substitute for lithium. The price of lithium carbonate is currently around US$4,500 to US$5,500 per metric tonne.

In Québec, several current mining projects have targeted the lithium carbonate market for use in the electric car industry. Québec does not yet produce any lithium carbonate, but some companies in the Boucherville area process the mineral for use in batteries, or to manufacture batteries for varies types of hybrid and electric vehicles. The lithium carbonate used comes from world markets.

Main lithium mining projects in Québec

Click on image to enlarge

In Québec, lithium is found in pegmatites and granites, and is principally associated with spodumene, an aluminum silicate (LiAl(Si2O6)) that contains up to 8% lithium oxide (Li2O). The spodumene can be separated from its gangue (quartz, feldspar, mica) by crushing and milling, and then concentrated by flotation. Ore containing between 1% and 3% Li2O can be concentrated to around 6% to 7.25% Li2O. Most of the ore is mined in open pits for economic reasons.

The main mining projects are located in the Abitibi region, to the north of Chibougamau and in the Eastmain-Nemiscau sector of James Bay. They are associated with spodumene indicators discovered mainly between the 1940s and the 1960s. In addition, practically all the pegmatite indicators containing lithium-bearing minerals are slated for exploration by various companies, which could lead to new discoveries. The table “Mineral resources: lithium projects in Québec” provides a comparative overview of the most active projects.

Projet

Compagnie

Étape
en cours

Ressources

Tonnage
(M t)

Teneur
(% Li20)

Teneur de
coupure
(% Li20)

Date

Québec Lithium

Canada Lithium

Mise
en valeur
(faisabilité)

Mesurées et
indiquées

29,29

1,19

0,8

05-2011

Présumées

20,93

1,15

Authier

Glen Eagle

Exploration
Mise en valeur

Indiqués

4,16

1,04

0,8

03-2011

Présumées

2,29

1,00

James Bay

Lithium One / Galaxy Res

Mise
en valeur
(préfaisabilité)

Mesurées et
indiquées

11,75

1,30

0,75

12-2010

Présumées

10,47

1,20

Whabouchi

Exploration Nemaska

Mise
en valeur
(préfaisabilité)

Mesurées et
indiquées

25,08

1,54

0,4

06-2011

Présumées

4,40

1,51

Rose

Corporation Éléments Critiques

Exploration
Mise en valeur

Mesurées et
indiquées

11,43

1,34

0,75

01-2011

Présumées

2,17

1,27

Moblan West

Perilya Canada /
Investissement
Québec

Exploration
Mise en valeur

Présumées

5,34

1,51

0,43

12-2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mining projects in the Abitibi region

Lithium projects in the Abitibi region can take advantage of existing infrastructures, a trained workforce and qualified mining services. They are also relatively close to markets in the United States, China, Asia and Europe.

Near La Corne, 60 km northwest of Val-d'Or, Canada Lithium has been working since 2008 on Québec’s most advanced lithium project, Québec Lithium. Historically, an underground mine (the Québec Lithium mine), a concentrator and a lithium carbonate processing plant operated from 1955 to 1965 on the same site, until unfavourable economic conditions led to closure.

Click on image to enlarge

An open-pit mine is now planned to extract new mineral resources located near the former mine galleries. Measured and indicated resources exceed 29 million tonnes, with an ore content of 1.19% Li2O. A revision of the mineral reserves and an update of the feasibility study are under way. The project plans include a concentrator able to treat one million tonnes of ore per year, and a plant producing 20,000 tonnes of high-purity lithium carbonate (99.5%+ Li2CO3). The project, valued at $202 million, is aimed mainly at the car battery market, and could supply roughly 20% of current world needs. Construction work is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2011, with production launched in 2013 for a period of 15 to 30 years.

About 30 km to the west of the Québec Lithium project, Glen Eagle Resources (Glen Eagle) is developing the Authier project, on a site that reached the prefeasibility stage in 1999 before being abandoned. Glen Eagle has an indicated mineral resource of 4.1 million tonnes, containing 1.04% Li2O. The company intends to increase the resource, conduct metallurgical testing and a pre-project environmental study, and has commissioned a feasibility study.

Mining projects in the Frotet-Evans belt sector
(North of Chibougamau)

Roughly 100 km from Chibougamau, close to the northern highway, attention is focused on two more mining projects: the Moblan Ouest project and the Sirmac project.

At the Moblan Ouest project of Perilya Canada and Investissement Québec, sampling and systematic drilling work in 2009 and 2010 will be used for a new mineral resource estimate, following an estimate of 5.3 million tonnes at 1.51% Li2O in 2008. The resources are associated with a 40 metre-thick dyke of spodumene-carrying pegmatite. The conclusions and recommendations of the metallurgical testing and prefeasibility technical studies are expected shortly.

Further west, the Sirmac project of Exploration Nemaska has reached the stage of systematic exploration by stripping, trenching and drilling. The work, scheduled for 2011, will be used to calculate the mineral resource.

Eastmain-Nemaska sector

Click on image to enlarge

In James Bay, three projects are at the development stage. They all have measured and indicated resources totalling over 10 million tonnes or more, with Li2O content ranging from 1.2% to 1.6% (Table 1). They benefit from infrastructures built for hydroelectric development such as roads, camps, airstrips, an electricity substation and power lines. The projects are subject to the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement (JBNQA).

The James Bay project of Lithium One and Galaxy Resources is located at the deposit discovered in 1964 by prospector Jean Cyr. It is located 380 km north of Matagami, along the James Bay highway. Since 2008, extensive exploration and drilling work has delimited the mineral resource. A feasibility study for the project will be completed by 2013 under the responsibility of Galaxy Resources, which recently opened a spodumene mine in Australia and is completing construction work on a lithium carbonate plant in China. The technical and economic parameters for the engineering of these projects could be applied in James Bay.

Around 40 km north of the Cree village of Nemaska, Critical Elements Corporation (CEC) has been working since late 2009 to develop a lithium deposit (spodumene and lepidolite) that also contains tantalum, beryllium and gallium minerals. The mineralized zone has been known since 1961, and as a result of recent drilling the mineral resource will be updated. Metallurgical tests and a basic environmental study are under way. A study setting out various operating scenarios is scheduled for the fall of 2011, followed by a feasibility study in the fall of 2012. In addition to lithium, tantalum could also be produced. CEC is continuing its exploration work on other spodumene-carrying pegmatite showings on its property.

Last, the Whabouchi project of Exploration Nemaska is found 15 km east of the Nemiscau truck stop and electric substation on the northern highway, roughly 280 km from Chibougamau. Exploration work began in the fall of 2009 and, by January 2011, a preliminary economic study outlined the interest of an open-pit mine and an on-site concentrator with a capacity of 1 million tonnes of ore per year. The dykes of steeply-sloping (70º-80º) spodumene-bearing pegmatites stretch over more than 1.3 km and are still present at a depth of 325 m, with a high lithium content (1.5% Li2O). Beryllium (136-140 ppm BeO) is also reported. An investment of $86 million and production start-up in 2014 are currently planned. Exploration Nemaska is also involved in a project to build a lithium carbonate plant in Québec, with financial support from the Cree nation and the Tiangi Group, a Chinese producer of lithium batteries and a lithium carbonate distributor.

As in other places in Québec, exploration projects are also under way close to these more advanced projects, all targeting spodumene-bearing pegmatites at or close to the surface. Several years of work can be expected before the extent and viability of these projects is known.

Québec’s position

China, India and North America will be the main driving forces for the lithium market, thanks to the development of electric vehicles and electronic devices. A growth in demand of 7% to 8% per year is expected between now and 2025. However, an oligopolistic market, new mining projects bringing more lithium carbonate to the market, uncertainty about whether electric vehicles will make a breakthrough, and research into new battery types, all point to an unsteady market for lithium over the coming years. Price drops can be expected, jeopardizing the more costly operations.

Against this background, Québec is in a strong position to take advantage of market opportunities over the coming years. Competing with expansion projects in South America (brines) and Australia (pegmatites), Québec mines will have to ensure that they can offer a high-quality product and stable supplies, and will have to target long-term contracts with steady customers.

Since Chinese battery manufacturers appear to prefer mineral sources (spodumene) to chemical sources (brine), their support for projects in Québec will be important.

The mining industry will have to demonstrate its ability to discover and develop new mineral resources, such as lithium, and to take an innovative approach. Tax breaks to allow risk-sharing, suitable infrastructures, competitive electricity rates and an expert workforce are just some of Québec’s assets.

If the right conditions are maintained, Québec will have its first operating lithium mine and its first lithium carbonate plant as early as 2013. In addition, there is a strong possibility that, by 2014 and 2015, two other mines and possible one other lithium carbonate plant will see the light of day. This would create new mining poles in the Abitibi region, north of Chibougamau, and in James Bay. In addition, some of the lithium carbonate produced in Québec could be used to supply Québec’s battery and battery component manufacturers.

 

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