The aim toward decarbonization and a sustainable future has caused exponential growth in the electric vehicle (EV) sector in the last few years, causing an increase in demand for lithium-ion batteries. Lithium, which is needed to produce virtually all batteries currently used in EVs, has experienced a simultaneous increase in demand. It is expected that lithium demand will rise from approximately 500,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) in 2021 to 3 million to 4 million metric tons in 2030.
Processing Lithium Brine
While operating companies may view themselves as mining companies, most lithium brine is commercially produced from either the mining of lithium-containing rock, such as spodumene, or from clay sources. To manufacture battery-grade materials, these companies act as chemical companies to get the lithium ready for the next steps to produce battery materials.
Right now, battery costs are about 30% to 40% of the EV cost. Reducing costs and improving reliability is the end goal. Best practices in chemical processing will be the key to achieving those goals. Indeed, battery materials include anode and cathode powders and their pre-cursors: catalysts, solid-electrolyte materials and sodium-ion materials. Each materials process has reaction chemistry, solid-liquid separation, washing/purification steps, process drying, solids handling/conveying and packaging, to name a few.
Materials Recovery and Sustainability
The final step in the process is recovering the materials from the battery-production scrap and from end-of-life (EOL) lithium-ion batteries. Materials that can be recovered include lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel, as well as aluminum, copper, graphite and electrolytes. The recovery process is very complex, and solutions are also in their infancy stage. The production scrap and EOL batteries are initially crushed and shredded to produce a black mass.
Characteristics of the black mass will vary depending on the source, so it is much different from producing a chemical. The black mass is then dried, mechanically sorted and refined to recover the battery-grade materials. Each of these steps requires mechanical technologies as well as process technologies.
Lithium Initiatives in the U.S.
As we know, there is a great amount of interest and money surrounding the lithium market. The Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries (FCAB) is led by the U.S. Energy, Defense, Commerce and State departments and includes many organizations across the government. FCAB brings together federal agencies to provide a coordinated approach to ensure a domestic supply of lithium batteries and accelerate the development of a robust and secure domestic industrial base. Its goals include:
1. Secure access to raw and refined materials and discover alternatives for critical minerals for commercial and defense applications
2. Support the growth of a U.S. materials-processing base able to meet domestic battery manufacturing demand
3. Stimulate the U.S. electrode, cell and pack manufacturing sectors
4. Enable U.S. end-of-life reuse and critical materials recycling at scale and a full competitive value chain in the U.S.
5. Maintain and advance U.S. battery technology leadership by strongly supporting scientific R&D, STEM education and workforce development
The opportunities for the chemical-processing industry are there. In this regular web-exclusive column we will explore current processes, technologies used, challenges and possible solutions. In the meantime, I’m happy to learn your thoughts on the industry, suggestions for future topics and the issues you are facing.