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ChemX Materials kicks off high-purity alumina plant construction

High-purity alumina produced from ChemX’s proprietary “HiPurA®” micro plant, which is being upscaled to a 24 tonnes per annum pilot plant. Credit: File

Budding critical materials producer ChemX Materials is set to kick off construction of its high-purity alumina (HPA) pilot plant later this month and has appointed metallurgical processing specialist, Fremantle Metallurgy, to oversee the project.

Following a pre-feasibility study (PFS) tabled in August last year, validating its proprietary “HiPurA®” technology, ChemX secured a site in O’Connor’s industrial hub near Fremantle in Western Australia to construct an upscaled HPA pilot plant. It prompted the company to give the green light to develop a 50 tonnes per annum pilot plant for an initial outlay of $2.5 million to cover infrastructure costs.

While finessing the design of the pilot production plant, it relocated and recommissioned its HPA micro plant to the O’Connor site, churning out 5kg per day of 4N HPA to produce samples for potential customers.

Under the continuous operating conditions of the HPA micro plant, tweaks to the process flow and simplified plant design slashed infrastructure costs down to $600,000 for a refined plant capacity of 24 tonnes per annum of 4N HPA.

ChemX’s HiPurA® HPA technology uses chemical feedstock sourced from Australian suppliers. The plant is scalable and modular, allowing modifications to be made to customer requirements and to produce a variety of HPA-based products.

Coming in at 99.99 per cent purity, 4N HPA is a sought-after critical material in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries and used to coat the ceramic separator housed between the anode and cathode. Increasing thermal insulation, the ceramic separator is crucial for improved safety, charging and battery performance.

The more refined 5N HPA, 99.999 per cent purity, is used to produce synthetic sapphire – a high-value material finding increasing use in semiconductor manufacturing, advanced optical lenses, LED lights and medical devices.

The Micro Plant has proven extremely effective in delivering the data required to improve the design and optimise the operation of the pilot plant. This has resulted in a significant reduction in capital costs and a reduction in reagent costs. Importantly, the resized pilot plant will still meet expected customer demand by producing sufficient product to complete qualification by battery separator makers, sapphire growers and other stakeholders. Inventor of the HiPurA® process and ChemX research and scientific advisor Dr Nicholas Welham

Management says construction of the pilot plant is expected to take about four months after which commissioning of the plant will be run in intensive campaigns to produce HPA samples big enough to meet customer needs and to demonstrate around-the-clock operation.

Further refinements to the micro plant are being investigated concurrently to allow the production of the higher-value 5N HPA product.

The company has already installed high-purity water and safety systems, along with a purpose-built laboratory with specialist equipment, to accelerate process optimisation and reduce reliance on external laboratories.

With the new pilot plant design taking up a smaller footprint, ChemX is casting a wistful eye over its extra available space, envisioning a second pilot plant to produce high-purity manganese sulphate monohydrate (HPMSM) from its Jamieson Tank deposit in South Australia. That would offer obvious synergies between the two critical battery materials and cost savings of shared infrastructure.

That same wistful eye is also firmly set on the burgeoning United States electric vehicle (EV) market, with ChemX hoping to tap into the plethora of opportunities arising from the introduction of the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) last August.

To qualify for generous incentives under the IRA, US EV manufacturers must process a percentage of the value of the critical materials used in EV batteries in the US or – and here’s the clincher for ChemX– in a country that has a free-trade agreement with the US, such as Australia.

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