Sibanye-Stillwater’s US partner secures $700m loan from US Govt. for lithium project

FINANCING of the proposed Rhyolite Ridge lithium-boron project in Nevada was given a shot in the arm after the US government approved a $700m loan, said Sibanye-Stillwater which will own half of the venture.

The South African miner said on Friday the Department of Energy (DOE) had approved the loan which would be provided to ioneer, the Sydney-listed firm with whom Sibanye-Stillwater announced a joint venture in 2021.

At the time, Sibanye-Stillwater said it expected to contribute about $490m in equity funding to Rhyolite Ridge which will supply refined lithium to the US automaking industry, among other sectors. The loan was anticipated to fund “a substantial part of the preliminary project capital,” said Sibanye-Stillwater.

The loan was made in terms of the DOE Loan Programs Office’s ‘Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing’ (AVTM) program. US president Joe Biden has thrown his administration’s weight behind the development of critical metals for the local manufacture of electric vehicles.

If completed, the proposed loan would be the first ever by the DOE to provide financing for the processing component of a project where lithium is extracted and refined on site, Sibanye-Stillwater said.

“The proposed loan represents a significant step towards further de-risking funding and ultimately progressing Rhyolite Ridge to production,” said Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye-Stillwater. “If finalised, this loan will ensure that the project can be swiftly advanced once the necessary permits have been granted and the outstanding conditions fulfilled.”

According to a presentation in 2021, the Rhyolite Ridge mine will produce 22,300 tons of lithium carbonate in its first three years of production, and 22,000 tons annually of lithium hydroxide thereafter. Boron production will be 175,000 tons annually. First production is set to be in the second half of 2024.

Sibanye-Stillwater intends to make lithium and other so-called critical metals, such as nickel, the third leg of its business with production in gold and platinum group metals already firmly established.

In November, the group approved the €588m development of the Keliber lithium deposit in which it recently increased its shareholding to 85%. The project, situated in Finland and part owned by the Finnish government, will begin with construction of the Kokkola refinery producing 15,000 tons a year of lithium hydroxide.