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Rio Tinto not shy on lithium M&A

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Rio Tinto has made its desire to increase its lithium exposure very clear in recent times, which is perhaps a product of its embryonic connection to the mineral.

When, in 2004, Rio went to explore for boron at its Jadar project in Serbia, the company discovered jadarite – a mineral containing both lithium and boron.

“We discovered lithium by coincidence because we went to Serbia to find boron and we found boron and lithium, and suddenly we realised that lithium was very valuable,” Rio Tinto chief executive officer Jakob Stausholm said on the sidelines of a Melbourne Mining Club luncheon this week.

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Since then, Rio Tinto has become a key exploration player in the lithium industry, highlighted by Jadar and its Rincon project in Argentina.

The major miner is also hunting for lithium in the Australian outback in partnership with Everest Metals.

While Rio has yet to advance a lithium project from exploration to production, the company has been quietly working away on test-work in the background.

“We have spent quite a lot of time on developing test plants here in Bundoora, Melbourne, and later on, a whole new flowsheet for processing plants,” Stausholm said.

“So the hard-rock lithium, we have learnt an awful lot from Serbia and right now with the Argentine project we are learning an awful lot about DLE (direct lithium extraction) technology, so it’s a technology game and I think we have a lot to bring.”

In fact, Stausholm declared Rio Tinto “a technology company”, which isn’t a drastic assessment given the technological advancements the major miner has instituted across its operations over the years.

With its Rincon project in a development phase, and the Jadar opportunity currently stalled by the Serbian Government, is Rio on the look-out for other lithium acquisitions?

“We’re looking at a number of opportunities,” Stausholm said. “It’s a really hot market, the lithium market, and we have some disciplines around it.

“We are looking at various possible interests but I’m quite reluctant to come out with too big of a cheque as we are also seeing pressure on project costs and difficult-to-follow schedules – you’ve seen a number of the announcements from other companies over the last month or two.

“But yes, I wouldn’t mind having lithium production in Canada but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to home in on a singular opportunity.”

Stausholm was speaking in response to a question about lithium opportunities in the James Bay region of Canada – a potentially synergetic region for the miner given its various aluminium, iron ore, ilmenite and diamond operations in the country.

James Bay has become a bit of a hunting ground for lithium in recent times, with various companies exploring for hard-rock deposits.

Notably, former Pilbara Minerals chief executive officer Ken Brinsden is leading the charge at Patriot Battery Metals, which is advancing its Corvette lithium project.

 

Source: Australian resources and investment

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