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applying practices from other mineral extractions
was no easy feat. “In terms of geology, lithium is
much closer to the oil industry than the classic
mining industry, because the brine is liquid so it
moves during extraction,” Mr. Aulanier says. The
project team spent two years investigating sites
and running feasibility studies to guarantee significant reserves before settling on a project site.
In tandem, the France-based R&D team was
tasked with developing a new process to replace
the usual evaporation method. Rather than
develop consecutive prototypes, the project manager split the team into five distinct groups—each
exploring one possible new method. “It was a
competitive development structure, so each team
concentrated on its own process, and then at the
end of 2013 we selected the best process,” says Mr.
Aulanier. When a clear winner emerged at the tail
end of 2013, the R&D team regrouped to focus
their collective efforts on refining and finalizing
the new technology.
“We knew from the start that our exploration
studies had to be organized in line with the R&D
development, and the first engineering studies
had to incorporate data from the field,” he says.
“It’s a very interconnected project, so bimonthly
meetings focused on making sure every phase and
task was coordinated.” The construction phase is
slated to start at the end of next year, and once
complete in mid-2019, the site is expected to
produce 20,000 tons of lithium carbonate annually—about 10 percent of global production, if all
goes according to plan. —Kate Rockwood
“For every one
project that succeeds,
you’ll have 40 or 50
—Brian Jaskula, U.S. Geological Survey,
Reston, Virginia, USA