Thursday, 26 August 2021

The race to produce 'home-grown' lithium hots up

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is bleak to say the least, and the science is strong enough now to leave little doubt that humans are playing a major role in climate change, even if natural forces are also at work.

Electric vehicles are part of the suite of solutions that could stave off the worst effects of global warming and air pollution. Lithium-ion batteries are the heart of EVs and as lithium is one of the most critical of metals the search is hotting up for 'home-grown' sources of lithium, and in particular innovations in processing brines and hard rock, reducing the reliance on China which processes much of the world's important battery metal. It is estimated that lithium demand could triple by 2025 to one million tonnes per year and then double again to two million tonnes per year by 2030 – the year the UK plans to ban new petrol and diesel car sales. Early in the month US President Joe Biden announced an executive order requiring 50% of all vehicles sold in USA to be electric by 2030! 

Batteries for an electric car are assembled at the Audi production plant in Brussels
Credit: Audi AG

With a typical lithium mine producing 30,000 tonnes per year the market needs approximately four new mines per year to keep pace with demand. However, experts point out that it takes five to seven years to discover, develop and put a lithium mine into production.

There has been much activity around the world in recent months, with news of new sources of the metal and innovations in processing, some of which are are highlighted here:

In general, lithium is produced either via hard rock mining, mainly for spodumene, or by extracting the mineral from South American brine deposits. Both methods have been criticised for their impacts on the environment.

There was news a few weeks ago that the USA's General Motors is investing in domestically sourced lithium. The company said that it is the first investor in an Australian company’s project to extract lithium from the Salton Sea Geothermal Field near Los Angeles, a huge area in the Imperial Valley that is already home to 11 geothermal power stations. The Controlled Thermal Resources “Hell’s Kitchen” lithium extraction project is expected to begin producing lithium in 2024. As with the Cornish Lithium project (see posting of 20th August for the latest news), it will be powered by renewable energy, using a closed-loop direct extraction process that returns spent brine to its underground source,

As with General Motors, the BMW Group will be accelerating its expansion of e-mobility in the coming years and will be sourcing lithium from a second leading supplier, US-based Livent.

The BMW Group had already signed a contract for the procurement of lithium from hard-rock deposits at Australian mines back in 2019 and is now broadening its supplier base and additionally sourcing lithium from Argentina, where the raw material is obtained from brine from salt lakes. Livent employs an innovative method, that emphasises sustainable water use and minimises the impact on local ecosystems and communities.

The world's second largest mining company, Rio Tinto, announced 4 weeks ago that it will spend $2.4 billion building a lithium mine in Serbia, from an entirely new mineral source, jadarite (LiNaSiB3O7OH). What makes the deposit unique is that both boron and lithium are contained in one mineral, which was new to science and which was later confirmed as a new mineral by the International Mineralogical Association. Rio Tinto’s Serbian team named it jadarite, 

Rio said its Jadar project in Serbia is expected to start operating in 2026 and hit full-production in 2029. The investment, which still depends on Rio Tinto being granted the necessary permits in the eastern European nation, would turn the company into a top-10 lithium producer globally and position it “as the largest source of lithium supply in Europe for at least the next 15 years.”

Rio Tinto is targeting an initial mine life of 2.3 million tonnes of lithium carbonate over 40 years. Following ramp-up to full production in 2029, the mine will produce roughly 58,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate, 160,000 tonnes of boric acid (borates are used in solar panels and wind turbines) and 255,000 tonnes of sodium sulphate.

There is also much fundamental research activity going on to extract lithium and other critical metals.

Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology have developed what they believe is an economically viable system to extract high-purity lithium from seawater, which contains 5,000 times more lithium than what can be found on land, but is present at extremely low concentrations of about 0.2 parts per million. The research team has tested a method that had never been used before to extract lithium ions. They employed an electrochemical cell containing a ceramic membrane made from lithium lanthanum titanium oxide. In a paper published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, the researchers explain that the membrane’s crystal structure contains holes just wide enough to let lithium ions pass through while blocking larger metal ions.

Scientists at the University of Oxford are proposing the idea of sustainably extracting copper, gold, zinc, silver and lithium from brines trapped in porous rocks at depths of around 2 kilometres below dormant volcanoes. In a paper published in the journal Open Science, the researchers explain that the gases released by magma beneath volcanoes are rich in metals. As the pressure drops, the gases separate into steam and brine. Most metals dissolved in the original magmatic gas become concentrated in the dense brine, which in turn gets trapped in porous rock. The less-dense and metal-depleted steam continues up to the surface, where it can form fumaroles, such as those seen at many active volcanoes.

According to the research team this trapped subterranean brine is a potential ‘liquid ore’ containing a slew of valuable metals, including gold, lithium and several million tonnes of copper, all of which could be exploited by extracting the fluids to the surface via deep wells. Employing this method could potentially reduce the cost of mining and ore processing. In addition, since geothermal power would be a significant by-product of this green-mining approach, operations would be carbon-neutral.

There are risks to this proposal, though. The main ones are related to the technology that has to be used as the process involves drilling into rock at 2 kilometres depth and at temperatures of more than 450°C. On top of this, the extracted fluids are corrosive, which places limits on the types of drilling materials and they tend to dump their metal load in the well-bore, a problem known as ‘scaling.’ These limitations mean that more research needs to be done around the dynamics of fluid flow and pressure-temperature control in the well-bore and that there will be a need to develop resistive coatings to prevent well-bore corrosion.

And on a less positive note for lithium, it has been reported that an alliance between Graphene Manufacturing Group and The University of Queensland is developing more sustainable graphene aluminum-ion batteries with a life up to three times greater than lithium-ion and with the ability to charge 70 times faster. They are also said to have a very low fire potential and a lower environmental impact than their Li-ion counterparts because they are more recyclable.

And only 3 weeks ago the world's biggest battery supplier, Chinese company Contemporary Amperex Technology, a major supplier to Tesla, unveiled a sodium-ion battery, a type of lower-density cell that uses cheaper raw materials than batteries made from lithium-ion metals. As well as a first generation of sodium batteries the company also launched a battery-pack solution that can integrate sodium-ion cells and lithium-ion cells into one case, compensating for the energy-density shortage of the former while preserving its advantages.

A company spokesman said "sodium-ion batteries have unique advantages in low-temperature performance, fast charging and environmental adaptability and they are compatible and complementary with lithium-ion batteries. Diversified technical routes are an important guarantee for the long-term development of the industry".

Diversified technology is also being explored by Lithium Australia, who feel that there may be a better way than incorporating nickel and cobalt in lithium-ion batteries, which is expensive and possibly problematic in terms of safety, supply chain disruptions and provenance (of cobalt in particular). One of the company's subsidiaries has recently been granted an Australian patent for the production of battery active phosphate materials. The patent covers lithium ferro phosphate variants that improve performance through the addition of elements like manganese and vanadium, producing a new generation of battery materials.

It is evident that much is happening in the crucial development of future battery technology and that despite innovative new developments lithium will be in high demand for decades to come. Anticipating a world dominated by electric vehicles, materials scientists are working on two big challenges. One is how to cut down on lithium and other metals in batteries that are scarce, expensive, or problematic because their mining carries harsh environmental and social costs. Another is to improve battery recycling, so that the valuable metals in spent car batteries can be efficiently reused. 

Battery- and carmakers are already spending billions of dollars on reducing the costs of manufacturing and recycling electric-vehicle batteries. National research funders have also founded centres to study better ways to make and recycle batteries. Because it is still less expensive, in most instances, to mine metals than to recycle them, a key goal is to develop processes to recover valuable metals cheaply enough to compete with freshly mined ones. It is one of the great challenges in mineral processing and will be highlighted at MEI's Sustainable Minerals '22 next July.

And a final thought: when the Taliban seized control of the Afghan government on August 15th, they gained the ability to control access to huge deposits of lithium and rare earth minerals that are crucial to the global clean energy economy. In 2010, an internal US Department of Defense memo called Afghanistan “the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” after American geologists discovered the vast extent of the country’s mineral wealth, valued at at least $1 trillion. Ten years later, thanks to conflict, corruption, and bureaucratic dysfunction, those resources remain almost entirely untapped (more info at Quartz).

“The Taliban is now sitting on some of the most important strategic minerals in the world,” said Rod Schoonover, head of the ecological security program at the Council on Strategic Risks, a Washington think tank. “Whether they can or will utilise them will be an important question going forward.” 

"As long as there are safer and more reliable sources elsewhere, full utilization of Afghan minerals is likely to remain slow,” Schoonover said. However, China and Russia are already retaining diplomatic ties with the Taliban, and will almost certainly do business with the new regime on its home turf.


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