The WA lithium jobs boom looks set to continue into 2019 with industry enthusiasm manifesting into huge investment.
US lithium giant Albemarle on Thursday celebrated the first earthworks on its $1 billion 60,000 tonnes per annum lithium hydroxide processing plant in Kemerton, in WA's South West.
The new Kemerton plant will be fed lithium from the nearby Greenbushes mine.
About 800 jobs will be created during its construction with commissioning expected to begin by 2021. Albemarle will have the option to expand the plant to 100,000 tonnes per annum.
The plant will be fed by Talison Lithium's nearby Greenbushes mine, which is one of the world's largest known deposits of lithium ore, known as spodumene.
Albemarle has a 49 per cent stake in Talison and Chinese producer Tianqi, the company behind the Kwinana lithium hydroxide plant, owns the rest.
Lithium stock prices didn't reflect the industry's excitement in 2018 but Albermarle lithium president Eric Norris said the Kemerton earthworks demonstrated the company's confidence in processing the commodity.
"Achieving this milestone underscores our commitment and confidence in developing lithium hydroxide operations in Western Australia and in our overall strategy to drive significant shareholder value and meet our customers' demands," he said.
Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham said the government was aware of growth in global demand for lithium and it presented huge future opportunities for Australia's lithium industry.
“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 lithium industry that will help
attract further investment into the future.”
In December Albemarle confirmed it would take a 50 per cent stake in Mineral Resources' Wodgina hard rock lithium project in WA's Pilbara region for $1.65 billion.
Also in the Pilbara junior lithium producer Pilbara Minerals Limited (ASX: PLS) announced it had secured funding from its customers for a $231 million expansion of its Pilgangoora lithium-tantalum project.
The funding package is underpinned by two of Pilbara Minerals’ key Chinese customers, Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium and Great Wall Motor Company.
The company believes the expansion will see it become one of the major global lithium raw materials producers by early next decade.
Pilbara Minerals’ managing director and chief executive Ken Brinsden said the company was out of the blocks early in the New Year with the funding announcement.
"Upon completion of the expansion by the March quarter of 2020, Pilgangoora will be elevated to an annualised production rate of up to 850,000 tonnes per annum of spodumene concentrate, putting us firmly on track to become one of the world’s major global lithium raw material producers," he said.
"Our key customers have recently visited site and they clearly like what they have seen.
"At the same time, they have made it clear that they would like to see the project grow further, prompting us to undertake studies to evaluate a potential stage three expansion to at least 6.2 million tonnes per annum and potentially up to 7.5million tonnes per annum, as part of the engineering work currently contributing to our stage two project."
Mr Brisden said the announcement should send a clear message about the robust outlook for the lithium market as far as the company's tier-one customer base is concerned.
Pilbara Minerals has also announced it will consider building a larger lithium processing facility with joint venture partner South Korean steel-making company POSCO.
Pilbara Minerals shares jumped 11 cents to a high of 73 cents following the announcements.