How sensor-based sorting can help lithium mining operations unlock untapped potential and meet rising demand

TGlobal demand for lithium is booming, driven by the growing adoption of electric vehicles and grid-scale lithium-ion batteries for energy storage. Some forecasts predict that demand will reach as much as 1.5 million tons of lithium carbonate equivalent by 2025 – three times what it was in 2021 – and more than 3 million tons by 2030.

In the face of such a surge in demand, lithium supply is struggling to keep up. While new projects are planned in 2023 and 2024 to increase lithium mining capacity, the surge in electric vehicle sales will continue to squeeze supply.

These trends translate into huge business potential for mining operations. However, as new projects will struggle to keep up with demand, this potential comes with the challenge of extracting as much lithium ore from all mines as efficiently as possible while meeting increasingly stringent environmental requirements.

Basalt pollution: the challenge in lithium mining

The biggest challenge in lithium mining is basalt contamination. This iron-rich, barren material has a high density very similar to that of spodumene. It means that when dense media separation (DMS) is used as the primary spodumene concentration process, basalt is concentrated with spodumene, contaminating the final product.

This problem can be addressed by selectively mining high grade ore, but contamination is unavoidable, and this approach ultimately results in a substandard product unsuitable for sale at market prices. This contaminated product is usually stored, leaving valuable lithium resources untapped. The DMS and crushing circuits used to produce lithium concentrate from ore are extremely energy intensive and transporting contaminants through the plant reduces productivity and increases costs.

Mining operations under pressure to meet rising demand must maximize the efficiency of their processing plants and use their capacity effectively to extract as much valuable lithium from their mines as possible.

The solution to this challenge is available from TOMRA Mining, the leader in sensor-based sorting with a proven track record of designing and building the largest, high-capacity sorting plants in the world. TOMRA’s proven technologies are able to effectively remove basalt contaminants prior to crushing, optimizing processing plant capacity, reducing energy consumption and waste, and lowering the environmental impact of the process. They enable mining operations to consistently achieve the required product quality and expand their resources to include more iron and basalt contaminated ore bodies.

The solution: unlocking untapped value with sensor-based ore sorting

TOMRA’s industry-leading sensor-based sorting solutions rely on color cameras, X-Ray Transmission sensors and multi-channel scanning lasers to sort the ore prior to downstream wet processing. The sensors analyze each individual particle, identifying the ore and waste in milliseconds, and high-speed jets of air direct the particles accordingly into the product or waste chutes, processing them at a capacity of up to 350 t/h in a single sorter.

These high-speed sensor solutions are capable of sorting a wide size range – from about 6mm to about 200mm – to maximize iron and basalt removal from the feed. With these technologies it is possible to minimize the unsorted fines that are discarded or stored, and they have been extensively proven to be effective in consistently reducing ore contamination to less than 4%.

This was Galaxy Resources’ experience in the Mt. Cattlin Mine in Western Australia, which has been operating a TOMRA PRO Secondary Laser Sorter since 2021 to reduce basalt contamination in the pegmatite-hosted spodumene. Since the first day of operation, it has met and exceeded specifications, consistently achieving less than 4% basalt in the concentrate.

Operational efficiency can be further improved through connectivity to the cloud-based subscription service TOMRA Insight, which turns the sorters into connected devices generating valuable process data. Mining operations can measure contamination levels in real time, and therefore mining quality. They can also monitor the particle size distribution, and consequently the efficiency of the upstream crushing and screening equipment. TOMRA Insight also provides insight into the availability and usage of the individual sorter, allowing the process to be optimized. In addition, it enables the operator to accurately detect any malfunctions and to improve maintenance processes, so that the sorting installation always works optimally.

A partner approach for a tailor-made solution

TOMRA works with customers to develop the customized solution that meets their requirements. It brings its in-depth process knowledge and expertise and assists customers from the development phase through procurement and factory integration with quality testing work on samples from the mine at the test center and flowchart guidance. The solution perfectly integrates sorting into the overall process flow for seamless operation. The sorters are specified to match the capacity of the crushing and screening plant and downstream wet processing plant, maximizing productivity.

This was the approach TOMRA took to design the world’s largest lithium sorting plant for Pilbara Minerals in Australia. Working closely with the customer’s metallurgical team, it completed extensive testing work at the TOMRA test center in Sydney, running sample ores from the mine onto production graders at full capacity. Based on the results of the testing work and its experience and ability to provide expert local support, TOMRA was awarded the contract. The involvement of the TOMRA team went beyond testing and supplying equipment to include assistance with the layout of the plant and an understanding of the implications of sorting on the ore’s upstream mining and downstream process, contributing to the efficient operational start-up and technical optimization.

TOMRA’s close relationship with its customers continues after installation and commissioning of the sorting plant, to keep it running at its best with tailored service agreements.

With TOMRA’s sensor-based ore sorting solutions, mining operations can not only improve the efficiency of their processing plants, but most importantly unlock value from stored materials and even expand their resources, exploit ore bodies with higher contamination or explore new mining opportunities in areas with higher iron or basalt content .

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