Zeolite? Never heard of it… but it sounds like magic and is possibly more valuable than lithium
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Here’s an unusual mineral you may not know much about – zeolite. And apparently it’s pretty valuable.
Junior explorer Neometals (ASX:NMT) looks to be the first ASX-listed company to produce commercial grade samples of synthetic zeolite from lithium processing waste.
Although, others have at least looked at the opportunity.
For example, in the mid-90s, the owners of the Greenbushes lithium mine in Western Australia assessed the potential for producing a synthetic zeolite from the lithium waste, but didn’t actually end up producing any.
Zeolite materials are produced as both naturally occurring and synthetic materials.
Naturally occurring zeolite can do cool stuff like increase biological activity, make fertiliser more effective, help remediate mines through absorption and retention of dangerous heavy metals and other metallurgical wastes, increase sewerage plant capacity, filtrate water and eliminate odours in worm farms.
Meanwhile, synthetic zeolites like what Neometals’ produced at “bench-scale” are typically used in more demanding industrial applications such as molecular sieves for natural gas dehydration, air and hydrocarbon purification.
Apparently, several commercial detergents contain synthetic zeolites, which help in increasing their washing efficiency.
According to Zeolite Australia, escott zeolite (naturally occurring) was formed from the glass component of volcanic ash millions of years ago.
Synthetic zeolite, on the other hand, is produced via a chemical process that combines mainly aluminium hydroxide, sodium silicate and caustic soda and is then heated.
Neometals is making synthetic zeolite from lithium processing waste from Mineral Resources’ (ASX:MIN) Mt Marion mine in Western Australia and third party feed stocks.
The company’s rationale for producing zeolite was to eliminate waste disposal and associated costs from lithium production and generate significant co‐product revenue.
Neometals’ lithium hydroxide plant would likely generate about 55,000 tonnes of waste, which the company expects it could convert into 100,000 to 110,000 tonnes of synthetic zeolite.
Although the company doesn’t yet have any concrete numbers around just how much it will save or boost revenue by, chief operating officer Michael Tamlin told Stockhead there will be a “significant” cost saving.
“By manufacturing alongside our hydroxide plant we eliminate the transport cost and the disposal cost,” he explained.
“So it’s a significant benefit merely to dispose of material in a way that’s free of cost.
“The second benefit of course is by transforming that into a saleable product we then have the opportunity to increase the overall revenue.”
Neometals says it has produced a “Type X” synthetic zeolite that can rival “industry leading zeolite products from a reference Japanese manufacturer”.
Type X zeolites are used as sorbents and catalysts.
According to Markets and Markets (2017), the global zeolite market is about 2.4 million tonnes per annum with a total estimated value of over $US13 billion each year.
Tamlin estimates synthetic zeolites would account for at least half of that, if not more.
“It’s a significantly bigger market than the global lithium market in tonnage and in value,” he said.
California-based market researcher Grand View Research expects the global zeolite market to reach $US33.8 billion by 2022.
The firm says synthetic zeolites are expected to grow the fastest at a compound of 2.6 per cent in terms of revenue from 2015 to 2022.
“Growing need for detergents, on account of rising consumer awareness regarding hygiene, is expected to subsequently augment industry growth,” Grand View Research said.