$1 billion South West lithium boom set to power up jobs

Work on WA’s latest $1 billion lithium plant will start within days as US resources giant Albemarle begins building a major processing facility outside Bunbury, creating hundreds of jobs in the South West.

Albemarle told the US stock exchange last night it has begun earthworks at its lithium hydroxide plant at Kemerton, 17km north-east of Bunbury, after the Federal Government ticked off on the plant’s final approvals.

The State Government gave the project the green light in November but Albemarle needed a final environmental sign-off from the Federal authorities before work could begin.

The plant will eventually turn lithium concentrate from the Greenbushes mine, itself undergoing a $1 billion expansion, into 100,000 tonnes a year of high-quality lithium hydroxide for use in the booming global battery market, increasing its value as much as twenty-fold.

Battery grade lithium hydroxide was selling for more than $20,000 a tonne last month.

About 500 new workers will be hired to build the plant and Albemarle has said the facility would need as many as 500 permanent employees when it reaches full capacity about 2021.

Albemarle president Eric Norris said the start of work at Kemerton was an important step for the company, which has now committed more than $3 billion into WA, including December’s decision to spend $1.6 billion to acquire half of Mineral Resources’ Wodgina lithium project in the Pilbara.

“Achieving this milestone underscores our commitment and confidence in developing lithium hydroxide operations in Western Australia,” he said.

Federal Trade and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham said the start of work was a major win for the State.

“We’re the world’s largest lithium producer and there is significant potential to grow investment in infrastructure at various stages within the value chain such as lithium processing,” he said.

“This is a welcome investment and vote of confidence in our local industry.”

Meanwhile in the State’s north, Perth mining company Pilbara Minerals says it has received $US75 million in funding from two key Chinese customers to help expand its lithium ore mine at Pilgangoora, 120km from Port Hedland, to produce five metric tons per year, up from two metric tones.

The expansion, to be completed by March 2020, puts the company “firmly on track to become one of the world's major global lithium raw material producers,” Pilbara Minerals managing director and CEO Ken Brinsden said.

“The quality of the products we are producing, the sheer scale of the resource and the speed at which production is ramping up means that Pilgangoora is rapidly being recognised as one of the most important new lithium raw materials projects globally.”

Pilbara said it had received funding commitments of $US25 million from Great Wall Motor Company and $US50 million from Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium Co.

That money, as well as a proposed $US50 million Nordic bond and existing cash, will be used to fund the $A231 million expansion of the Pilgangoora mine, which first began producing spodumene concentrate in October.