Lithium and the increase of spodumene shipments: NorthStandard

Group Club NorthStandard has noted that the global demand for lithium for use in batteries had led to an increase in shipments of spodumene, a lithium aluminium silicate and is the world’s most abundant commercially viable lithium mineral.

Unfortunately, spodumene also carries shifting and liquefaction risks.

Rapid global increase in lithium demand due to the advent of the electric vehicle battery industry has led to the mineral sources of lithium being increasingly developed and exploited, with spodumene being the most important. The IMSBC Code includes a schedule for spodumene (upgraded). It is an odourless and tasteless off-white to beige sand, containing a mixture of naturally occurring silicates and quartz. It is categorized as a Group A cargo, meaning that it might liquefy if shipped at a moisture content in excess of its transportable moisture limit.

NorthStandard also said that spodumene could be declared by shippers under different names, including Lithium Mineral Concentrate, Lithium Alumina Silicate, Spodumene Concentrate SC6.0 and Alpha Spodumene.

There are significant deposits of spodumene in Australia, which currently has the highest existing annual production, as well as in South America and Canada. There is a growing African export sector (Zimbabwe, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali), which NorthStandard anticipated would be increasingly important due to its large reserves.

Currently, the destination of spodumene concentrates is almost exclusively China. The silicate typically discharges in ports within the Sichuan and Jiangsu provinces.

The source rock (spodumene pegmatite) is typically upgraded to a spodumene concentrate for shipping purposes. However, the Club said that it could also be shipped in its natural coarse state, which can consist of large cobbles (or even boulders), sometimes in palletized form, and is similar in appearance to an aggregate material.

The large particle size and relatively low friction meant that, if improperly loaded in the ship’s hold, there was risk that the cargo as a whole (or individual rocks) could shift, creating stability issues, causing damage to vessel or stress being applied to the structure of the vessel.

The Club noted that because coarse material shipments up until recently had been considered uneconomic, it had no individual schedule in the IMSBC Code 2022 edition. However, the increase in lithium prices had made coarse product shipments a more viable economic option, especially from mining operations that were remote or trying to develop early revenue streams before their concentrate processing facilities become operational.

In some regions, especially in Southern African countries such as Namibia and Zimbabwe, there was a focus to control the natural resources. The countries aimed to control the export of raw materials by promoting value-added local concentrate processing. In some cases, full or partial bans have been put on the export of unprocessed (coarse) spodumene pegmatite.

Mining and material experts Roxburgh anticipated that a pragmatic approach would be adopted and, as the industry demand increased, there would be a mix of ore and concentrates shipped out of these regions.

The spodumene (upgraded) concentrate processing facilities that were currently under construction near mines and quarries were expected to become operational in the near future. This process would involve spodumene pegmatites (raw coarse state) undergoing initial concentration via crushing and grinding to a fine particle size. The valuable minerals would then be separated and a waste by-product produced. This could present shipping issues such as liquefaction, dynamic separation or cargo shift.

The upgraded lithium concentrate (also known as SC6) is then processed further to produce a sand containing naturally occurring quartz and silicates, as well as the valuable spodumene.

As with other mineral concentrates, the potential risk of material failure during shipping, such as liquefaction, would be conditional on the cargo’s particle size distribution, mineralogy, and moisture content. “Therefore, before commencing loading, the shipper must provide the ship’s master with accurate information on the specific properties of the cargo to allow for safe stowage and shipment”, said NorthStandard, adding that “the shipper should provide evidence that a proper technical assessment for the potential Group A properties of the cargo has been undertaken. Also, the subsequent procedures for sampling, testing and moisture management of the cargo are to be reviewed and approved by the competent authority at the port of loading.”

In some of the developing regions exporting this cargo, there were concerns that procedures for sampling and testing might not have had proper consideration or oversight. Members were therefore recommended to ensure they are provided with the relevant documentation well in advance of loading, to allow for a proper review.

NorthStandard thanks Roxburgh for its assistance with this article.