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Clean-Mining Technology Pulls Key Metals Out of Water

Published: Thursday, 1 Mar 2012 | 12:43 PM ET
A California firm’s new technique of cleaner “mining” could provide the electric-vehicle battery industry with all the lithium it needs, in a greener and cleaner way.

Simbol Materials and Geothermal Plant site at Salton Sea region, Ca.
Source: Simbol Materials
Simbol Materials and Geothermal Plant site at Salton Sea region, Ca.

Pleasanton-based Simbol Materials’technology can pull lithium, and other critical metals, out of the effluent water of some geothermal power plants, eliminating the drill-and-blast approach of traditional mining.

“Geothermal power plants provide a quality source of brine,” says Simbol CEO Luka Erceg. “It’s replete and rich with lithium and other metals” like zinc and manganese, he adds.

That’s because geothermal power plants extract hot brine or steam from underground to turn turbines and generate power.

Simbol’s focus will be on the geothermal power plants around the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley.

The economics are compelling, says Erceg, noting that the Salton Sea is capable of supporting 500-600MW of geothermal power generation.

Just one “typical” 50MW plant, he says, creates enough brine to produce 16,000 tons of lithium carbonate — a key form of the element — as well as significant amounts of zinc and manganese.

Market rates for lithium carbonate are currently around $5,500/ton.

The Simbol process leverages a current business to get raw “ore” for almost nothing, something conventional miners pay a fortune to find and exploit.

“We’re at the tail end of their process,” says Simbol’s Erceg. “The last thing I want to do is build a geothermal power plant” just to access the brine, he says.

The power plant owners receive a royalty, he says, adding that geothermal power plant operator EnergySource is a Simbol partner.

“It’s great for geothermal [power plant] owners whose plants’ effluent contains sufficient lithium,” says Garvin Jabusch, chief investment officer at investment firm Green Alpha Advisors. “It means they now have two revenue streams from the same operations — a dream scenario.”

He adds that for geothermal projects with the right geology “this could be a game-changer and allow the net cost of their power to compete with fossil fuels.”

Global demand for lithium is expected to jump to nearly 300,000 tons annually by 2020, according to several clean tech research firms, driven by a need for electric vehicle batteries.

Battery firms like A123 [AONE  1.70    0.02  (+1.19%)   ] that produce lithium ion battery for General Motors [GM  25.17    0.12  (+0.48%)   ] new Chevy Spark, consume 25 percent of the world’s lithium.

The remaining 75 percent is used by various industries, from pharmaceuticals to ceramics.

Erceg says his goal is to be “among the lowest cost producers” of lithium, which industry estimates put at between $1450-2500/ton.

Like many commodities, the lithium market took a hit after the 2008 recession. The world’s biggest producer, Chile’s SQM, says it sees a glut of lithium until 2020.

But Green Alpha’s Jabusch says the booming worldwide need for lithium-ion rechargeable batteries — for consumer electronics and tools as well as electric and hybrid vehicles — actually points to a current shortage.

“Considering the global economy is experiencing about a 35,000-ton annual lithium shortfall, there will be no problem [for Simbol to] find markets and still get competitive prices,” says Jabusch.

Unlike a typical mining process that produces tailings that require remediation, Erceg says their process actually better prepares the brine for re-injection into the geothermal source, where it would normally be sent anyway.

For power plant operators, a new revenue stream is more good news, considering geothermal energy is already among the cheapest fuel sources.

US Department of Energy figures show that for plants commissioned by 2016, the levelized cost of energy for geothermal is about $102/mwh, compared to $109/mwh for advanced coal-fired plants and $113/mwh for next-generation nuclear power.

But like solar and wind power, while the fuel is effectively free, the upfront capital costs can be high.

Investor presentations at various renewable energy conferences have shown drilling of geothermal wells, each capable of producing around 5MW of power, cost around $10 million, with a 20 percent failure rate.

For Erceg, he says one issue, as with all drilling, is the government permitting process.

“There’s no way to be innovative around those delays,” he says.


That could help more power plants using Simbol’s technology, says Green Alpha’s Jabusch.But previously tabled legislation in the US Congress could be pointing to coming incentives for domestic production of critical materials, like lithium, in the near future.

Concerns over China’s hoarding of rare earth metals in past years — metals critical to the clean tech  industry — led the US Department of Energy to produce a 2011 report identifying critical metals to the US cleantech industry, including lithium.

“I think given the importance of lithium [in] batteries, magnets, turbines, and their importance in the next green economy, that the most key, rarest ones should absolutely be declared ‘critical,’” says Jabusch. “Clearly they’re already critical to China, which has taken a lead to the tune something like 80 percent of Earth’s existing production.”

Whatever the demand for lithium and other critical metals, Simbol’s approach is also a sign of a growing movement towards “clean mining” techniques that also improve the miner’s bottom line, says clean tech analyst Dallas Kachan, managing director at research firm Kachan and Co.

“The world has had hundreds of years of dirty mining,” he says. “It’s taking time for new clean technologies that are quietly emerging to prove themselves economically.”

But Kachan, whose firm is spearheading the creation of a new clean mining trade group, adds that advances in energy savings, waste stream reuse and better site reclamation are changing the entire mining industry for the better.

“You’ll soon start to see them reshape the face of mining as we know it today,” he says.

“We need these elements and lots of them,” says Green Alpha’s Jabusch. “To the extent that Simbol or any other enterprise can get them from existing drilling operations, so much the better.”

Southern Copper gets $1.3 bil over deal

Grupo Mexico ordered to pay $1.3 bil over deal

1 comment by Max Jarman – Oct. 19, 2011 05:56 PM
The Arizona Republic

 

Mexican conglomerate Grupo Mexico SAB, which bankrupted Arizona miner Asarco LLC and then recovered the company after shedding billions of dollars in U.S. environmental liabilities, is in trouble over another controversial transaction.

A Delaware judge has ordered the company to pay more than $1.3 billion to minority owners of its Phoenix-based Southern Peru Copper Corp. unit over a deal it engineered in 2005.

Documents in Delaware’s Chancery Court show that Grupo owned a 55 percent stake in Southern Peru in 2005, when it got the company to buy its ailing Minerva Mexico mining unit for $3.75 billion in stock.
Southern Peru’s minority shareholders sued, claiming that the price of Minerva was inflated and that the transaction unfairly benefited Grupo Mexico.

The court recently determined Minerva was worth only $2.43 billion at the time and ordered Grupo Mexico to return the overpayment.

Grupo plans to appeal the decision to the Delaware Supreme Court.

The deal was part of a complicated restructuring in which Grupo put its troubled Asarco unit into bankruptcy and dumped its ailing Minerva Mining business on Southern Peru.

Grupo acquired its stake in Southern Peru for $750 million in 2003 from Asarco, which Grupo had acquired in a leveraged buyout in 1999.

Asarco came with huge legacy environmental liabilities related to dozens of old mine and mill sites across the U.S. Without the support of the Southern Peru dividends, the company ran into financial trouble. Asarco filed for Chapter 11 protection in 2005.

Grupo Mexico was then removed from control of Asarco, and an independent operating committee restored the Tucson-based company to profitability and was able to discharge much of the environmental liabilities.

The independent operators of Asarco also sued Grupo, alleging it underpaid for Southern Peru and thereby defrauded Asarco’s creditors. A federal judge agreed and ordered Grupo to return 30 percent of Southern Peru’s outstanding shares, plus dividends, to Asarco.

The issue became moot in 2009, when Grupo regained control of Asarco in a Bankruptcy Court battle with India-based miner Sterlite Industries.

Grupo now wants to merge the restructured Asarco with Southern Peru Copper, which has been renamed Southern Copper Corp.

Asarco operates the Mission, Ray and Silver Bell mines in Arizona.

Southern Copper, based in Phoenix, operates mines in Peru and Mexico.

Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/business/articles/2011/10/19/20111019grupo-mexico-ordered-pay-13-bil-over-deal.html#ixzz1opeq8wXx

Arizona copper mining giant Asarco marks 100 years

Expanding copper giant marks its century in Arizona mining

1 comment by Ryan Randazzo – Feb. 24, 2012 02:46 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com

 

Tucson-based copper-mining giant Asarco will celebrate more than 100 years of operations in Arizona today and reports that its operations are growing.

Asarco operates the Mission mine near Sahuarita, the Ray mine near Kearny and the Silver Bell mine near Marana as well as its 101-year-old concentrator and 100-year-old smelter in Hayden, which will be celebrated along with Arizona’s centennial.

State, town and county representatives are expected to be on hand for the celebration at the Hayden Golf Course, which will end with a fireworks display at dusk.
It opened the Hayden smelter to process ore from the nearby Ray mine, which it did not own at the time.Asarco was organized in 1899 as the American Smelting and Refining Co.

It has faced many struggles in its history, including low copper prices.

Due to the Depression, the smelter was shut down in March 1933 and did not start up again until late 1937, when natural gas first came to the smelter, according to Asarco.

In May 1958, the owner of the Ray mine terminated its contract to ship concentrates to Hayden, ending a nearly 50-year relationship. By then, Asarco was starting up its own mines and mills in Arizona, with Silver Bell coming on line in 1952 and Mission in 1961, providing substitutes for the Ray concentrates.

Through exploration, Asarco continued to find copper reserves to extend the mines’ lives by decades. Keeping those mines operating also has kept the smelter in business.

A company known as Kennecott operated its own smelter in the region from 1958 to 1982. After it shut down, in 1986 Asarco bought the Ray mine and again began feeding the smelter from that operation.

In 1999, Asarco was acquired by Grupo Mexico SAB. Grupo put Asarco into bankruptcy in 2005 and again acquired the company in 2009.

Asarco is expanding the Mission mine through a $60 million project expected to be finished next year. It will increase the production capacity of its copper concentrator, which processes the mine’s ore.

Asarco also is spending about $5 million to possibly restart mining molybdenum at the Mission property.

The company also is considering an expansion at the Ray mine, said Tom Aldrich, vice president of environmental affairs.

“We actively, at all of our properties, are doing exploration drilling to redefine what the ore reserves are,” he said.

He said when he was working at the Hayden complex in 1976, the Ray mine was predicted to operate for 30 more years.

“Now, we mine twice as much as we used to and have ore reserves for another 30 years,” he said.

The mine has enough reserves to operate until 2044, according to the company.

The Hayden smelter mostly processes material from Asarco’s mines but also does some processing for other mining companies, such as Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc., he said.

Once copper ore is processed at the smelter into anodes that are about 98.5 percent to 99 percent pure copper, it is shipped to Amarillo, Texas, where Asarco further refines it so it can be used for wiring, electrical components and other materials.

Asarco employs about 2,600 people, mostly in Arizona, and some of them have been working at the concentrator and smelter for generations, Aldrich said.

The centennial celebration comes amid an Environmental Protection Agency investigation into the Hayden operations.

In November, the EPA surprised Asarco with a “finding of violation,” which stated that since 2005 the Hayden smelter has been in violation of air-pollution rules. EPA spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan in San Francisco declined to comment because the investigation is ongoing.

Asarco in Arizona

Ray and Hayden operations: A large open-pit mine, two concentrators, smelter and other facilities in Pinal and Gila counties. Produced 83.3 million pounds of copper cathode and 350.3 million pounds of copper anode in 2010. Spent $294.5 million on materials, energy, supplies, etc. that year. Employs about 1,400 people.

Mission complex: Five open-pit mines in Pima County. Produced $183.9 million pounds of copper concentrates in 2010 and spent $118.4 million that year, including $35.4 million in royalties to the state and $23.4 million to the Tohono O’odham Nation. Employs about 600 people.

Silver Bell: Four open-pit mines in Pima County. Produced 46.3 million pounds of copper cathode in 2010 and spent $25 million that year. Employs about 155 people.

Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/business/articles/2012/02/24/20120224arizona-copper-mining-giant-asarco-marks-100-years.html#ixzz1opeSHu3v