Can you provide a brief overview of your Rhyolite Ridge project?
ioneer owns the Rhyolite Ridge lithium-boron project, located in Esmeralda County in Nevada. We are the most advanced pre-production lithium project in the US and will soon become the lowest cost lithium producer in the world. This will be made possible because the boron will account for about 30% of the project’s revenue and cover approximately 70% of the costs.
What were the main findings of the Definitive Feasibility Study (DFS) completed in 2020?
The DFS concluded that we would develop an open pit mine operation. We have a hard rock deposit, and we will use conventional mining methods to extract the rock. That rock will be processed on-site to extract the lithium and boron from it. Then, these will be refined and processed to make the end-product lithium chemicals at the site, which is very unique among hard-rock operations around the world. The DFS also confirmed our ability to produce approximately 22,000 mt/y of lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, and 174,000 mt/y of boric acid for 26 years.
How did ioneer’s pilot plant help to understand the most effective way of processing the boron-lithium ore?
We constructed a full simulation pilot plant, where we reproduced each part of the process from the rock to the end product. Rather than using new technology, we adopted technologies from existing copper, lithium and boron mining operations, bringing them together in one process plant to suit our unique deposit. We decided to use a large-scale pilot plant instead of working with small samples in a lab because this allowed us to observe how things will behave more precisely at commercial scale, without large variations.
What measures have you taken to reduce the environmental impact of the mine?
Considering we will produce over 20,000 mt/y of lithium chemicals, we have achieved an extremely small mine footprint through several initiatives. Firstly, with regards to water, we decided to take a different approach to most lithium brine operations which use evaporation ponds; to concentrate the lithium, we will leach the lithium out of the rock and then concentrate it in sealed tanks by heating and evaporating the water. As the steam comes off, we will capture this steam and condense it back into water. This way, about 50% of all our water will be re-circulated. Secondly, we will power the entire operation through a sulphuric acid plant. The plant will convert sulphur into commercial grade sulphuric acid, used to leach lithium and boron from the crushed rock. The heat released in the process will be recovered to produce steam for electricity, resulting in zero CO2 emissions. Finally, our operation will not need tailings dams since our residue material is suitable for dry-stack storage.
ioneer recently reached an agreement to establish a joint venture with Sibanye-Stillwater. What does this arrangement entail?
Rhyolite Ridge will be a sizeable project with a long mine life, a large capex and ongoing capital requirements. Therefore, our board decided to bring in a strategic partner. Sibanye-Stillwater will contribute US$490 million for a 50% interest in the JV, while ioneer will maintain a 50% interest and retain operatorship. The US$490 million represents about 60% of the capital required to build the project and the balance will be funded through debt. Separate to the joint venture, Sibanye has invested US$70 million directly into ioneer by way of a share placement. This partnership essentially de-risks the funding required to build this project.
What can we expect from ioneer in the coming months?
Over the next 6-12 months, we will finalize permitting and the detailed engineering. Our offtake agreement on the boron has already been completed, so we will work on finalizing the offtake agreements for lithium. We currently have a binding lithium offtake supply agreement with EcoPro Innovation for about a third of our production. EcoPro is one of the largest cathode manufacturers in the world and is planning to have production facilities in the US, Europe and Korea. We will continue building our team and expect to commence construction in H2 of 2022. Then, there will be a two-year build period, in which ioneer will transition from a developer to a producer, with the first production beginning in late 2024.