LONDON, March 25 - U.S.-based Doe Run, the privately held integrated lead producer, said it could be using its new, more environmentally friendly process to produce the metal in just over three years.
"If everything is really positive the plant's going to be running by mid-2013," said Jose Hansen, Doe Run's Vice President of Sales in a telephone interview with Reuters.
Earlier this week, the company unveiled the new technology it said is safer, cleaner and more efficient.
It replaces traditional, high temperature lead smelting with a wet chemical process to selectively dissolve lead concentrates into solution.
The exact timing would depend on several factors, including plant location and, critically, financing for the project.
The company has estimated it needs investment of over $150 million to take it to commercial scale.
"We're talking with different people, applying for a loan guarantee from the U.S. government. We're actively pursuing funding for this project," Hansen said.
A feasibility study is due to be finalised at the end of this year after which more details, such as location, equipment size and production costs, will become available.
Doe Run expects it to change the face of the industry.
"Through this process, production is going to be cleaner and obviously it's going to help to have enough lead for the future."
The technology eliminates sulphur dioxide emissions.
"In the future we're going to see tighter SO2 regulation and also for lead contained in the air. In order to continue primary production we need to have the new process," Hansen said.
The global lead market has been shaken by lead poisoning scandals in top producer China.
Lead poisoning is endemic among Chinese workers in the metal industry as well as in neighbouring communities.
High levels of lead in blood can stunt development, especially mental development, of children and causes adults to feel weak and lose weight.
Doe Run owns Herculaneum -- the sole primary lead smelter -- processing lead concentrates in the United States, along with its mines and Buick secondary operation.
Hansen said the new facility could be even bigger than Herculaneum, which has the capacity to produce around 220,000 tonnes per year of lead.
"Depending on demand it could be even larger than Herculaneum if market demand is there. We can have more modules."
The plant will produce 99.99 percent lead in the form of cathodes, which will then be melted and cut into different shapes for customers.
Herculaneum in Missouri is currently operating just one of its two furnaces and is expected to produce about 118,000 tonnes of lead in its current financial year to end-October.
Hansen said Doe Run is confident the new process can be used globally, including at its sister company's Oroya plant in Peru.
"We have run all the metallurgical tests on our own mines, but we are sure the new technology will apply to other kinds of ore sources and also even in the case of secondary lead," Hansen said, adding this would require further testing in the future.
Western world secondary lead production accounted for more than 70 percent of western world total in 2009, according to the International Lead and Zinc Study Group (ILZSG).