A billion-dollar lithium mine proposed for Esmeralda County could deliver about 20,000 tons of lithium each year when the mine is slated to go into production in 2025. The Rhyolite Ridge lithium-boron project also would deliver roughly $100 million annually in boron, said Bernard Rowe, managing director and chief executive officer for Reno-based ioneer. Boron sales could offset about 70 percent of the mine’s operating costs, Rowe added. While ioneer hopes to enter production in late 2025, the company has to develop the infrastructure needed to process the lithium-boron ore – and that could cost around $1 billion, Rowe said. However, ioneer already has more than half of that financing in place and is awaiting approval on a Department of Energy loan that could provide the rest. “What really sets this project apart is the equity financing that’s already in place,” Rowe told NNBW during an interview a few weeks ago. “We have got half a billion dollars of equity in place to build this project – no other lithium project anywhere in the United States is financed to that extent.” Rowe said that lithium mining is such a nascent industry — there’s only one operating lithium mine in the entire U.S., and it’s also in Nevada — that traditional routes of project financing were unavailable to ioneer. “You can’t just go to a bank and get financing for projects like this — lithium is still too early in its development as a commodity to rely on for traditional types of financing for a mining project,” he said. “But that financing sets us apart because we have got that equity in place.” ioneer, which is headquartered in North Sydney, Australia but has a regional office in south Reno, engaged Goldman Sachs to help it find an equity partner to build the Rhyolite Ridge lithium-boron mine by providing project financing.
The “White Hill” at Rhyolite Ridge.
New joint-venture mining company ioneer selected Sibanye-Stillwater, owner and operator of the Stillwell and East Boulder platinum group metal mines about 85 miles southwest of Billings, Mont. Once a final investment decision is made regarding the Rhyolite Ridge project, Sibanye-Stillwater has committed to contribute $490 million in equity in exchange for a 50 percent interest in the project. In 2021, Sibanye-Stillwater also made a $70 million in an additional investment in ioneer. Sibanye-Stillwater may invest an additional $50 million for a 50 percent interest in an adjacent potential development project, Rowe added. ioneer and Sibanye formed a joint-venture company that will wholly own the project, Rowe told NNBW. ioneer, however, will operate the mine. The JV also applied for a $500 million loan with the DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. Rowe said Rhyolite Ridge is the only lithium project that has been invited into the formal due diligence process for the DOE loan program. “We think we are well positioned to get it,” Rowe said. “If we are successful with that loan, then this project is fully funded. “Even if we get approved, there is no guarantee we will get the full $500 million, but that’s what we applied for,” he added. “The funding of the project is all related to this joint venture project, which we anticipate will have $1 billion.” According to a feasibility study done two years ago by global engineering and construction company Fluor Corporation of Irving, Texas, the Rhyolite Ridge lithium-boron project was expected to cost upwards of $800 million. However, rising costs and inflation have likely impacted that number, Rowe acknowledged. Advanced-stage project Even though there’s a great deal of work still to do before lithium-boron ore is mined at Rhyolite Ridge, the project is the most advanced lithium mine in the United States, Rowe said. ioneer finished a bankable feasibility study more than two years ago. It has completed all environmental baseline studies, as well as developed a 1,000-plus-page plan of operation, which is awaiting approval from the Bureau of Land Management. Air and water permits for the project have already been issued by the State of Nevada. ioneer has spent about $100 million over the last six years to develop Rhyolite Ridge, Rowe said. It’s even completed a full-simulation pilot plant that models how the material will be taken from rock at Rhyolite Ridge and processed into high-purity lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide. “We have fully simulated – on a scaled-down model – the entire flow sheet,” Rowe said. Mining at Rhyolite Ridge will be a different process from the lithium clay deposits found elsewhere in Nevada because ore contains a mix of lithium and boron. Rowe said it’s the only deposit of its kind. “It’s really rare to have lithium with a lot of boron,” he said. “That dictates how we process the material because it behaves differently.” ioneer plans to use a series of leach tanks to leach coarsely crushed ore that’s about ¾ of an inch. The process is similar to heap-leach operations where ore is stacked atop an impermeable plastic membrane and then treated with corrosive chemicals to separate precious metals and other compounds from the ore. Leaching will be done in contained tanks, though, to control temperature and acidity, Rowe said. From there, a series of stainless steel evaporator and crystallizer tanks will evaporate the water to concentrate the lithium and boron. Different chemical reactions will be used to force out the boron, followed by impurities such as magnesium, potassium and sodium. Lithium is the last element to be forced out. “When we leach this material, we get lithium and boron together, and when we want to make lithium out of the solution, we end up with boric acid. It’s all part of the same process,” Rowe said. Boron will account for about 30 percent, or approximately $100 million, of the mine’s projected annual revenue, Rowe said. Boron is an element that’s found in borosilicate glass, an ultra-thin, high-strength glass that’s used in the screens for mobile phones and tablets. It’s also used as a micronutrient in agriculture, as well as in fiberglass and insulation, Rowe said. Boron also is used as an alloy in steelmaking to increase the steel’s hardness. “(Boron) pays for about 70 percent of our operating costs, so it’s incredibly valuable to this project,” Rowe said. ioneer already has signed a handful of legally binding sale agreements for the lithium carbonate and boron that will be produced at Rhyolite Ridge. Ford will take one-third of the lithium, while South Korea's Ecopro Co., will take another third. ioneer also a binding agreement with Prime Planet Energy & Solutions, the joint-venture battery company between Toyota and Panasonic. Additionally, ioneer signed offtake agreements with three Nevada-based companies: Dragonfly Energy of Reno, NexTech Batteries of Carson City, and Lithion Battery of Henderson. The Rhyolite Ridge project currently has a mine life of 26 years based on the feasibility study, but it could be in operation much longer than that based on resource estimates. “This could easily be 50 years based on what we have drilled to date, and it’s still open in several directions,” Rowe said. “We anticipate this being potentially a 100-year mine life.” Challenges of a billion-dollar project in the heart of Nevada Building the mine infrastructure could take approximately two years to complete with a construction team of as many as 600 workers. The community of Dyer is about 30 minutes from the site, while Tonopah is about 40 miles away as the crow flies, Rowe said. Hawthorne is about an 80-minute drive, he added. “A project like this, you need people, and you need to put those people into accommodations and feed them,” Rowe said. “Delivering and executing on the plan is the biggest challenge ahead of us. “It takes a lot of preparation, but ioneer is thorough and diligent,” he added. “We have a team working on execution and how we will deliver this project. We also have Fluor working alongside us, and they are the best engineering company in the United States. You build a great team, and that’s how you manage execution risk around this project.”
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