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White Gold: The Crucial Role of Lithium in Electric Batteries

Introduction

In the quest for a sustainable and eco-friendly future, the shift towards electric vehicles and renewable energy sources has gained significant momentum. At the heart of this revolution lies a vital element, often referred to as “white gold” – lithium. This unassuming metal plays a pivotal role in powering the clean energy movement, with electric batteries being one of its most remarkable applications. Let’s explore the indispensable role of lithium in electric batteries and its impact on shaping a greener tomorrow.

 

Understanding the Significance of Lithium:

Lithium is a soft, silvery-white metal that has unique chemical properties, making it an ideal candidate for energy storage applications. Lithium is a chemical element with the symbol Li and atomic number 3. It is a soft, silvery-white metal that belongs to the alkali metal group of elements. Lithium is the lightest of all metals and is highly reactive, making it useful for a variety of applications.

What sets lithium apart is its low atomic weight and its ability to form highly reactive compounds, which allows it to store and release electrical energy efficiently. These characteristics have made it a cornerstone of modern battery technology.

Lithium is commonly used in batteries, particularly in rechargeable batteries for portable electronic devices like laptops, smartphones, and electric vehicles. It is also used in various industrial applications, including ceramics, glass, and aluminum production.

Lithium has some medical uses as well. It is used to treat certain psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder and depression, and is also used as a mood stabilizer.

 

 

Powering Electric Mobility:

In recent years, lithium has gained attention as a potential source of renewable energy. Lithium-ion batteries are a key component in many renewable energy systems, such as those used in solar and wind power. As demand for renewable energy grows, so does the demand for lithium.

 

The rapid adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) is a testament to the crucial role lithium plays in driving the automotive industry towards a sustainable future. Lithium-ion batteries have become the standard for EVs due to their high energy density, long lifespan, and fast charging capabilities. These batteries enable electric cars to cover longer distances on a single charge, making them a viable and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fossil-fuel-powered vehicles.

 

Enabling Renewable Energy Integration:

Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, offer a promising pathway to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. However, these sources are intermittent and can be unpredictable. Lithium-based batteries act as indispensable energy storage solutions, allowing excess renewable energy to be stored and used when demand is high or when renewable sources are not available. This enables a smoother integration of renewable energy into the grid, improving grid stability and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

 

Strategic Material

Lithium is often considered a strategic material due to its increasing importance in many modern industries, including electronics, electric vehicles, and renewable energy. The global demand for lithium is expected to continue to grow as these industries continue to expand.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global sales of new electric vehicles (EV) grew from 3 million in 2020 to 6.6 million in 2021, and with increasing numbers of governments pledging to discontinue sales of petrol and diesel vehicles, demand for the batteries in EVs is set to escalate even further.

It has been estimated that 2 billion battery electric, plug‐in hybrid and fuel-cell electric light‐duty vehicles will be needed by 2050 to meet net zero targets. Each EV lithium-ion battery pack contains around 8 kg of lithium, and in 2022 year global lithium production was 100 000 tons.

 

With the large projected growth in EV vehicles, there is a threat of a Global Shortage of Lithium material. This issue is treated in detail in Powering the Electric Revolution: Addressing the Global Shortage of Battery Minerals

 

Revolutionizing Portable Electronics:

Beyond electric vehicles and renewable energy, lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized the world of portable electronics. From smartphones and laptops to tablets and smartwatches, these compact and lightweight batteries have become the powerhouses that keep our gadgets running throughout the day. Their high energy density and rechargeable nature have made them an essential component in the ever-evolving landscape of modern technology.

 

Because of its importance, some countries have designated lithium as a critical material. In the United States, for example, the Department of Energy has included lithium on its list of critical materials, which are deemed essential to the country’s economic and national security.

Lithium Reserves

Lithium resources are not evenly distributed around the world, with the majority of known lithium reserves located in just a few countries, including Chile, Australia, and Argentina. As a result, some countries that lack significant lithium reserves have sought to secure access to the material through trade agreements or other means.

China, Australia, and Chile currently dominate the global lithium market, making up 90% of the world’s output. However, the China’s concentration has led to price volatility and shortages. This has prompted Indian companies to establish production facilities as well as Japan, South Korea and Australia to invest in new mines or develop capacities significantly. In an attempt to address these shortcomings, a group of 31 world leaders signed the Marrakesh Declaration at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year pledging $10 billion over 10 years for research into new mining methods and technologies that would enable more sustainable production of lithium.

After years of research and development, South America is poised to become a major global player in the supply of lithium. The region has the resources needed to meet the demand for lithium batteries, as well as a population that is already familiar with how to use battery technologies. This could help to bridge the gap between demand and supply, which would be crucial in ensuring an adequate supply of lithium for technology applications.

Brazil is the world’s sixth-largest producer of lithium but has only a small supply chain due to its isolated location. The country’s government is working with companies such as Samsung and Renault to develop new technologies for extracting lithium from minerals.

Argentina has the world’s second-largest reserves of lithium but is not currently able to produce enough battery cells or laptops with the mineral due to a lack of processing facilities. The country’s government is investing in renewable energy projects that could help produce more battery cells in the global lithium market. In 2021, the country produced over 2 million tons of lithium.

Chile produces more than half of the world’s output of lithium carbonate but faces shortages in refining capacity and transport infrastructure. The country has the world’s largest reserve of 8 million tons. This has slowed down development on new mining projects. The country’s government aims to increase production by 1 million tons by 2025. As of 2022, it produces around 1 million ton, mostly through extraction from mines in the Andes mountains.

Mexico has one-seventh of the world’s reserves in the global lithium market but accounts for almost 5% of global production due to large reserves in the states of Sonora, Chihuahua and Nuevo León. Mining companies have been expanding their operations into previously untapped areas such as salt flats in Tamaulipas state.

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of lithium. It also holds significant reserves of the metal. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, China had 4.5 million metric tons of lithium reserves as of 2021, more than any other country. As a result, China has a significant degree of control over the global lithium market, with the ability to affect prices and supply through its production and export policies. Additionally, China has been investing heavily in lithium mining and processing infrastructure, as well as in the development of electric vehicle technology, which is a major consumer of lithium-ion batteries. This has positioned China as a dominant player in the global supply chain for lithium-ion batteries, which has become a key component of the transition to clean energy.

Lithium-ion battery costs rose last year for the first time in the EV era, according to BloombergNEF. Elon Musk bemoaned lithium’s “insane” rally and said high raw material costs were among Tesla Inc.’s biggest headwinds.

India’s Mines Ministry in Feb 2023 announced that 5.9 million tonnes of lithium reserves have been found for the first time in the country in Jammu and Kashmir. “Geological Survey of India for the first time established Lithium inferred resources (G3) of 5.9 million tonnes in the Salal-Haimana area of the Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir,” the Ministry of Mines said.

In 2020-21, India imported Rs 173 crore worth of lithium and Rs 8,811 crore worth of lithium ions. India’s lithium needs are also likely to rise, given the push for electric vehicles. Secondly, lithium reserves are also rare. There are 98 million tonnes of lithium globally, said Rishabh Jain, senior programme lead, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). Now India has found 5.5% of these resources, he added.

As per one estimate, Chile – at 9.2 million tonnes – led the world in lithium reserves, followed by Australia (6.2 million tonnes). So India’s recent find of 5.9 million tonnes of lithium could catapult it into the top three countries in the world with the highest lithium reserves.

 

Lithium Manufacturing

High purity lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate is required for battery manufacture. Impurities represent a significant challenge because they cause: poor charging performance, which lowers the range of EVs; more frequent charging; poorer performance in cold temperatures; and in some cases, they can cause batteries to overheat.

This mineral is becoming increasingly important as electric vehicles become more popular. Lithium carbonate is the main form of lithium present on Earth, but there are also lithium oxychloride, lithium hydroxide, and lithium oxide deposits, among others. There are currently few mines production resources available in the global lithium market, with most coming from Chile and Argentina. However, the global demand for batteries continues to increase, making new discoveries essential.

Several companies are working to find new sources of lithium for use in batteries. Most recently, Element 14 announced a 3-million-euro ($3.5 million) deal with Anglo American Minerals to explore an underground Lithium project in Argentina. Although not a large discovery yet, these deals underscore the growing interest in this mineral.

Some companies in the global lithium market are also looking into developing new ways to extract lithium from its resource base using a less energy-intensive process than traditional mining methods such as open-pit mining or acid leaching. Several companies have begun testing out this technology including Berkeley Mineral Resources Corporation (BMRC) who announced they had successfully extracted 602 pounds (269 kgs) of pure lithium from an old battery clay quarry in New Mexico using a proprietary ionic liquid extraction process developed by its subsidiary Almaden Minerals Incorporated (AMI).

Lithium is typically extracted from various minerals and brines, with the most common sources being spodumene and brine deposits. The exact process used to extract lithium can vary depending on the source of the mineral, but the general process typically involves several stages.

  1. Mining or pumping: In the case of spodumene, the mineral is typically mined from the earth and then crushed and processed to remove impurities. In the case of brine deposits, the lithium is extracted from underground brine using a pumping process.
  2. Concentration: Once the lithium has been extracted, it is typically concentrated to increase the lithium content. This can be done using a variety of methods, such as flotation, gravity separation, or magnetic separation.
  3. Conversion: In this step, the concentrated lithium is typically converted into a more soluble form, such as lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, through a chemical process. The specific chemicals and conditions used can vary depending on the desired end product.
  4. Purification: The converted lithium is then typically purified to remove any remaining impurities or byproducts. This can involve additional chemical processing steps, such as precipitation or ion exchange.
  5. Production of final product: The purified lithium is then used to produce a variety of lithium-based products, including batteries, ceramics, and lubricants.

 

In addition, the production of lithium can be environmentally challenging due to the high water usage and potential for pollution during mining and processing. The sustainability of lithium production is a growing concern, and efforts are being made to improve the environmental and social impact of lithium extraction and processing.

Consequently, there are enormous demands for lithium production to be efficient, high-quality and fast. Similarly, it will be necessary to recycle the components of EV batteries that have reached the end of their useful service.

As a result, efforts are being made to improve the sustainability of lithium production, including the development of new technologies and processes that use less water and produce less waste.

 

Breakthrough technology for lithium manufacture

To help meet this challenge, a small start-up business in Finland, Sensmet, has developed an online monitoring technology that it says promises a step-change improvement in both the manufacturing and recycling of battery metals. Sensmet CEO Dr Toni Laurila, explains: “We bring the analytical performance equivalence of laboratory ICP-OES next to the production process where real-time metal concentration results are acutely needed. In comparison with laboratory analysis, Sensmet’s technology provides robust, fully automated online measurement, which offers enormous advantages for process management and quality control.”

Traditionally, battery metal manufacturers have had to rely on batch sampling and laboratory analysis in order to control their processes, but typically this incurs a delay of 4–10 hours. Sensmet has therefore developed a breakthrough online technology; Micro-Discharge Optical Emission Spectroscopy µDOES®, which is able to measure multiple metals, including alkali metals, such as any battery metal and their impurities, in real-time.

Laboratory analysis can take several hours for a sample to be collected and analysed in a laboratory, which means that process managers are unable to adjust dosing of chemicals efficiently. Consequently, raw materials are wasted and product purity – the most important product quality – is difficult to control, which is especially important because impurities significantly affect the performance of Li-Ion batteries. Sampling for laboratory analysis is also laborious, expensive and often rather challenging to reliably arrange 24/7. For all of these reasons, continuous monitoring has long been the dream in lithium manufacture, so with successful trials at several plants, the industry is delighted that the dream has become reality.

Continuous multi-metal monitoring technology
Sensmet’s Micro-Discharge Optical Emission Spectroscopy, µDOES®, enables the multi-metal real-time analysis of aqueous samples. In addition to lithium manufacture, the technology is also suited to the ‘black mass’ recycling of battery metals.

The patented µDOES® technology is based on atomic emission spectroscopy. A micro-discharge (electric spark) is created directly inside the aqueous sample, causing a microscopic volume of the fluid surrounding the spark to be flash-heated to 10 000 °C. Molecular species in the micro-discharge are dissociated into atoms, which are excited to their respective higher electronic states. Upon returning to their ground state, these atoms release their excess energy by emitting light at their characteristic wavelengths. The µDOES® measures this atomic emission spectrum to derive quantitative analysis of the metals contained in the sample.

Data from the µDOES® analyser are displayed locally showing the concentrations and trends for each metal, and alarm levels can be set for each element. Results are transferred digitally to users’ databases and/or the cloud.

In hydrometallurgical processes which cannot be controlled by monitoring pH, direct measurements of dissolved metal concentrations are essential. There are alternative methods of monitoring, but all of these have major limitations. For example, online XRF is unable to measure light elements such as lithium and sodium, and it is almost impossible to calibrate XRF for low concentration impurity measurements.

Advantages of continuous monitoring
Given the large sums of money involved in lithium manufacture (raw materials and final product), the accurate dosing of precipitation chemicals is extremely important. For example, when sodium carbonate is added to a slurry containing beta spodumene under high temperature and pressure, lithium carbonate and analcime solids are formed. If insufficient sodium carbonate is dosed, some of the lithium will not react to form lithium carbonate, and unreacted lithium will be lost in the side product analcime sand. This is extremely undesirable because it represents a loss of revenue. Overdosing is also undesirable because it would result in a waste of process chemicals.

Continuous monitoring is also vital for the reduction of battery metal impurities such as sodium, potassium, copper, zinc and calcium; all of which can be measured by µDOES® at any stage of the hydrometallurgical production and recycling process. Strict monitoring and control can therefore reduce the impurity levels and thereby prevent the cost and delay incurred by retreatment.

 

Lithium Market

Global lithium market size was valued at USD 7.1 billion in 2021, and it is expected to reach a value of USD 15.45 billion by 2028, at a CAGR of 11.75% over the forecast period (2022–2028).

The Lithium Industry Association (LIA) forecasts that the global demand for lithium will grow from 292 thousand metric tons in 2020 to 2.5 million metric tons by 2030. This increase in demand is due to increased usage of lithium-based batteries in electronics and vehicles.

There are several factors contributing to the increasing demand for lithium, including more efficient and affordable batteries that can store more energy, regulations stimulating development of green technology and growing concern over climate change.

The global lithium market has been growing rapidly in recent years due to the increasing demand for lithium-ion batteries, which are used in a wide range of applications including electric vehicles, consumer electronics, and energy storage systems. The market for lithium is expected to continue to grow in the coming years as the demand for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage systems increases.

Currently, the largest consumers of lithium are China and the United States, with Europe and Japan also significant markets. The price of lithium is largely determined by supply and demand factors, with supply being influenced by factors such as the availability of lithium reserves, mining capacity, and production costs. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of companies exploring for and producing lithium, particularly in countries such as Australia, Chile, and Argentina, which have large reserves of the metal. However, the market remains subject to volatility due to factors such as changes in demand, the availability of new lithium reserves, and fluctuations in commodity prices.

Sodium Ion Batteries Could Be Potential Threat to Lithium Market

Automotive companies are exploring new battery materials that rely on Sodium ion as an energy source. Research is ongoing to find a replacement for lithium-ion batteries, which are currently the most common type in electric vehicles. Sodium ion batteries hold many potential advantages over lithium-ion batteries, including being cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

However, Sodium ion batteries have some drawbacks. They’re less efficient than lithium-ion batteries and take longer to charge. Additionally, they’re not compatible with current car production lines. These issues will need to be addressed if sodium ion batteries are to become more widespread in the automotive industry.

Top Players in Global Lithium Market are FMC Corporation (India), SQM S.A. (CHILE), Tianqi Lithium (Australia), International Lithium Corp. (China), LSC Lithium Corporation (Canada), American Lithium Corp. (Canada), Livent (US), BYD Company (China), LG Chem (South Korea),
Samsung SDI (South Korea)

 

Addressing Environmental Concerns:

While lithium plays a crucial role in promoting sustainability, concerns have been raised about the environmental impact of its extraction and production. Responsible mining practices and recycling initiatives are essential to minimize the environmental footprint of lithium extraction. Additionally, ongoing research and innovation aim to develop more sustainable battery materials and recycling methods to further reduce the environmental impact of lithium batteries.

Looking Ahead:

As the world strives to reduce carbon emissions and transition towards cleaner energy solutions, the role of lithium in electric batteries becomes even more significant. The continuous advancements in battery technology, coupled with sustainable sourcing and recycling practices, will further drive the widespread adoption of electric vehicles and renewable energy integration.

In conclusion, lithium, the “white gold” of electric batteries, is at the core of the clean energy revolution. Its unique properties enable us to harness the power of electricity sustainably, paving the way for a greener and more environmentally conscious future. As technology continues to evolve, the potential applications of lithium in energy storage will undoubtedly unlock new possibilities, accelerating our journey towards a cleaner and more sustainable planet.

 

 

References and Resources also include:

https://envirotecmagazine.com/2023/01/06/breakthrough-technology-for-lithium-manufacture/

https://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2022/11/17/2558102/0/en/Global-Lithium-Market-to-Hit-Sales-of-15-45-Billion-by-2028-Sodium-Ion-Batteries-Could-Be-Potential-Threat-to-Lithium-Market.html

https://thewire.in/environment/lithium-reserve-jammu-kashmir-tests-india

 

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