Lithium has historically been produced from two sources: brines and hard rock mining. A third source, hectorite clays, has been identified but production methods have not been proven.
The traditional hard-rock mining of pegmatites containing the lithium bearing silicate spudomene is time, energy and cost intensive. Lithium is the thirty-third most frequently occurring mineral so it is not exactly scare, but concentrations are generally too low, and extraction too difficult and costly to be viable. The major trend in the lithium industry has been a transition from hard rock mining-based sources of lithium to brine-based ones. The cost-effectiveness of brine operations forced even large producers in China and Russia to develop their own brine sources or buy raw materials from brine producers.
The economics of obtaining lithium carbonate from brine are so favorable that most hard rock production has been priced out of the market. Lithium brines are currently the only lithium source that can support mining without significant other credits from tantalum, niobium, tin etc., (low manganese content within Nevada’s Clayton Valley brines significantly reduces recovery costs unlike Chile’s high manganese content brine deposits). Lithium brine resources are now the preferred method of lithium recovery.
The only lithium producing plant in North America is located in Clayton Valley, Nevada, USA. The facility was opened in 1967 and has been producing lithium carbonate from brines ever since.
Recovering lithium from brines is not considered hard rock mining, it is classified the same as placer and permitting is much easier and quicker.
Lithium recovery from brines could lead to a huge carbon footprint reduction because of a nearly zero-waste mining method. Once the lithium is recovered the chemicals used can be recycled, also the by-products include saleable compounds such as potash and/or boron.
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