Lithium has become a fundamental material for the transformation towards clean energy, whether it is used in batteries for electric vehicles to store renewable energy from the wind or the sun. However, the lithium needed to make those batteries not evenly distributed throughout the world and its extraction with current techniques only achieves between 50 and 70% of the material contained in the rocks. In this context, an Australian company has presented a process that raises this rate to 95%.
There are three metals that will cause a commercial fight of which the first outbreaks are already seen. The lithium, nickel and cobalt they will be the new “black gold” of the industry, which has already caused their prices to skyrocket to their all-time highs with an eye on the coming years and on a foreseeable shortage of supply. Lithium, in addition to not being distributed evenly around the world, has a global supply chain that is usually controlled by Chinese companies.
Much of the world’s supply is dissolved in brine. Some of it is trapped in rocks in a similar way to aluminum found in a mineral called bauxite. Australia supplies the 60% of lithium extracted from a mineral called spodumene. According to Mining Weeklycurrent extraction techniques only recover between 50% and 70% of the metal, through a process that consumes a lot of energy.
Since 2015, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organization-ANSTO) collaborates with the company Lithium Australia to develop a new technology that can extract up to 95% of lithium available in spodumene. In addition, it can also squeeze out more of the waste left behind by the conventional extraction process.
The new process, called LieNA, eliminates the need for high-temperature processing, which reduces energy costs. Patented by Lithium Australia, LieNA technology involves initial caustic treatment under autoclave conditions to form a synthetic lithium sodalite. The metal is then easily extracted and purified into lithium phosphate. From there, it can be used directly in the manufacture of LFP batteries.
As explained by Dr. Chris Griffith, responsible for processes at ANSTO to Mining Weekly, The new technology not only improves the overall extraction rate, but avoids the high-temperature, high-energy step associated with conventional spodumene processing and may increase the sustainability of lithium operations around the world. “Until now, the industry has accepted that a large amount of lithium is lost during processing. We are the first in the world to achieve such an efficient level of extraction,” says Griffith. “This technology really does have enormous potential for an industry that is integral to our transition to the electrification of transportation and ultimately a cleaner, greener future.”
Griffith points out that demand for lithium has reached record levels in the world. The amount of metal used has almost quadrupled in the last decade, and some estimates indicate that the size of the global lithium-ion battery market will grow from $41.1 billion in 2021 to $116.6 billion in 2030.