Rio Tinto kicks off $10m pilot hoping to become the largest lithium miner in US

The 90-year-old Boron mine has thrived on production of borates, but may soon become a major source of lithium as well. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto.)

Rio Tinto, (ASX, LON:RIO), the world’s No. 2 miner, may become the largest lithium producer in the United States if a pilot project that is kicking off at its Boron mine, in the California desert, proves to be successful enough to be expanded. 

The company will be studying ways to extract lithium from tailings at the 90-year-old open pit mine, which produces borates — a group of minerals used to make insulation fibreglass wind turbines and consumer goods such as soaps and cosmetics.

The potential annual output is enough for 15,000 Tesla Model S batteries

Rio’s discovery of lithium at Boron was a fluke. The miner was actually testing Boron’s tailings to see whether the presence of gold was significant and found instead traces of lithium at a concentration higher than domestic projects under development.

“If trials continue to prove successful, this has the potential to become America’s largest domestic producer of battery-grade lithium — all without the need for further mining,” Rio Tinto’s energy and minerals chief executive, Bold Baatar, said Tuesday in an emailed statement.

The company has earmarked a $10 million investment to build a pilot plant that will be able to produce 10 tonnes a year of lithium-carbonate, needed in rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) and high tech devices. If that works, Rio Tinto would consider investing in a $50 million industrial-scale plant to generate 5,000 tonnes a year — enough for around 15,000 Tesla Model S batteries.

The projected production would be roughly the same as the capacity of Albemarle ’s Silver Peak mine in Nevada, which is currently the only lithium-carbonate producing asset in the country, according to the US Geological Survey. 

“If trials continue to prove successful, this has the potential to become America’s largest domestic producer of battery-grade lithium”

Rio Tinto’s energy and minerals chief executive, Bold Baatar .

Until now, the global miner’s incursion in the lithium market has been mostly limited to its 100%-owned lithium and borates mineral project in Jadar, Serbia. While still in the early stages of development, the company plans to seek board approval next year, with first production expected in 2024 — the fastest possible development schedule for the operation.

Last year, Rio allegedly attempted to buy a $5 billion stake in Chile’s Chemical and Mining Society (SQM), the world’s second largest lithium producer. 

In March, the head of new ventures and the company’s lithium division, Andrew Latham, said the company was “actively looking” to invest in metals to be impacted by the EV market.

Prices for the white metal have dropped since mid-2018, ending a three-year rally, due partly to an avalanche of new supply coming mostly from Australia and signs of demand weakness.

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