India and Australia could strike first lithium deal

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India and Australia are joining forces in a deal which could see Australian lithium used in the first Indian refinery to produce battery-grade material for electric cars.

Neometals, an Australian company with an interest in the Mount Marion lithium mine near Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, has partnered with New Delhi’s Manikaran Power to fund a feasibility study into developing India’s first lithium refinery. The study could take 18-24 months and is expected to make an investment decision in first half of 2021.

Australia has lithium reserves of an estimated 2.7 million tonnes, mostly in the state of Western Australia, near state capital Perth. Thus far, most of the nation’s lithium projects have been with Chinese and American partners and the proposed tie-up could lead to the first lithium deal between an Australian and Indian company.

If the lithium project study results in a 50:50 joint venture, the Australian company would provide its skills in mining and early-stage processing of lithium ore with its Indian partner taking the lead in financing at least half the capital cost as well as securing regulatory approvals.

The rationale

“Neometals and Manikaran hold a common belief in the future demand for lithium driven by the electrification of transport and storage of renewable energy,” said Chris Reed, CEO of Neometals, in an announcement to the Australian Securities Exchange yesterday. “Given India’s growth projections for electric vehicle and lithium battery manufacturing capacity, this opportunity to partner in India’s first domestic lithium development and potentially realize value from downstream processing [of] our offtake option from Mount Marion is compelling. Manikaran has significant on-the-ground presence and commercial standing in India to assist with site location, regulations, access to finance, utilities and reagents, and is part of a group of companies with broad competencies that enhance their value proposition as partners.”

Formed in 2005 and a trader on energy market platforms the Indian Energy Exchange and Power Exchange India Ltd, Manikaran Power Limited is India’s third-largest power trading and diversified renewable energy company.

In October Harinder Sidhu, Australian high commissioner in India, announced Indian companies are welcome to own Australian lithium mines.

“We see an interest by India in engaging with Australia for lithium mining,” said Sidhu, who was launching the An India Economic Strategy to 2035 policy study outlining Australia’s bid to engage with the country. “There is no impediment in doing so, subject to regulatory and other requirements, and there is no impediment to Australia exporting lithium to India.”