Albemarle Corp’s claim to have developed a unique process that would more than triple its lithium production from Chile’s Atacama Desert without using more water is drawing increased scrutiny from regulators and investors pushing for more details.
The development could help Albemarle cement its position as the world’s largest lithium company, just as global demand for the light metal is spiking for use in batteries that power electric vehicles and consumer goods.
The lack of clarity over the issue prompted Chile’s nuclear commission, which oversees the sale and export of lithium in Chile, to deny Albemarle’s request to increase its production quota for the white metal. The agency says the company has yet to explain how its technology will allow it to extract more lithium from the same amount of brine in the world’s driest desert.
Albemarle has been reluctant to provide specific details of the new process first announced in September 2017. The Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission (CCHEN) began asking last March for specifics on the process.
Albemarle says it “is preparing a revised request addressing CCHEN’s concerns, which are of a technical nature” and that it expects to ultimately receive approval to produce more lithium.
Asked by Reuters in late October for more concrete details on the new technology, Eric Norris, head of Albemarle’s lithium division, said the new process was “very efficient and it’s obviously very sustainable” but gave few other specific details.
“It’s likely some process or technology where you don’t lose lithium to the salts that evaporate out of the ponds,” said Robert Baylis, a lithium analyst with Roskill.
Norris said Albemarle would spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” to build a plant in the Atacama that would further refine brine concentrate to increase the amount of lithium recovered to 80 percent, up from “about half” today. Some industry analysts say the current lithium recovery figure is lower, around 30 percent.
Norris also said the company was spending $1 billion in Chile, its largest area of operations, and hiring more than 1,700 people. But he offered no timeline for the spending and hiring.
“I don’t know if they’re doing anything proprietary or revolutionary,” said David Deak, an independent battery industry consultant and former lithium buyer for electric carmarker Tesla Inc. “It’s unclear really what Albemarle has here, and what it means in terms of water usage.”
That usage is closely watched by Chilean regulators, despite the $100 million in royalties the country collects annually from Albemarle, due to concerns about water and brine levels in the Atacama.