What is battery grade lithium, and why is it important?
Lithium is one of the critical ingredients in lithium-ion electric batteries. It is light and allows a high voltage, making it a perfect energy-dense material for rechargeable batteries. Lithium assets like brines and hard rock are a known raw source of lithium. Raw lithium must be converted into a chemical the intermediates lithium sulfate or lithium chloride and then refined into a battery-grade product such as lithium hydroxide (LiOH) or lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) for use in battery manufacturing. These lithium-ion batteries are used in commercial applications such as electric vehicles (EVs), electronics, and energy storage systems.
Where does lithium come from?
Lithium is extracted from various feedstocks all around the world and available for refining into a battery-grade product as either lithium sulfate or lithium chloride, depending on the source. Lithium may be extracted from naturally occurring mineral sources such as brines and hard rocks, or from battery recycling. Here is a breakdown of all the raw sources for lithium:
- Salar brines: Lithium is available in seasonally flooded dry lakes called salars. The water from these salars are evaporated and the lithium is extracted and available for refining as lithium chloride.
- Geothermal brines: Lithium is available in underground geothermal saline solutions which are then pumped to the surface and cooled. Geothermal brines are the concentrated liquid that remains. Typically this brine is evaporated in ponds and made available for refining as lithium chloride.
- Petro-brines: Lithium is present in the brines that are brought to the surface during oil and gas extraction. The petrolithium present in these brines is available for refining as lithium chloride.
- Hard rock: Lithium can be mined from mineral rocks, such as spodumene and lepidolite. These materials are crushed, calcinated, and digested with acids. This produces lithium sulfate which is available for refining.
- Clays: Like hard rocks, lithium from clays are crushed, calcinated, digested with acids. The resulting lithium sulfate is then available for refining.
- Recycled batteries: Lithium is a finite naturally occurring resource. This means battery recycling is an important strategy for lithium extraction. Batteries are processed into ‘black mass’ by battery recyclers, and after a long process, lithium is extracted and available for refining as either lithium sulfate, lithium chloride, or a combination of both.
The high demand for battery-grade lithium
The boom in global electric vehicle (EV) sales and the push for a transition to renewable energy has caused a dramatic increase in the demand for high-quality battery-grade lithium (lithium hydroxide and lithium carbonate). By 2035, it is predicted that the most prominent automotive market segment will be fully electric vehicles.
Currently, there is a gap between the supply and demand for lithium; meaning the demand for lithium is greater than its availability. As the EV and renewable energy market continue to grow, so too will the disparity between the demand and availability of high-quality battery-grade lithium (lithium hydroxide and lithium carbonate). This may result in limited availability of EVs and products that rely on renewable energy for consumers.
Bottleneck at the lithium refining stage
Despite being extracted globally, the process of refining lithium into battery-grade lithium hydroxide is mostly concentrated in China. This causes a significant bottleneck for lithium supplies at the refining stage. In order to overcome this bottleneck, a Benchmark Minerals analysis projects that the lithium industry will need a $42 billion investment in order to meet the projected demands for battery-grade lithium in 2030. This equates to $7.2 billion/year between now and 2028 needed to accommodate the demands for the growing EV and renewable energy market – especially as Europe and North America move to reduce their reliance on foreign supplies.
This centralized lithium refining system is also vulnerable to supply chain issues. As evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent microchip shortage, a similar situation could halt battery production at a significant scale. This would result in a substantial decrease in the availability of consumer goods that rely on refined lithium, such as EVs.
The current system of shipping raw lithium overseas for refining also adds to the overall carbon footprint of the battery value chain – this is ironically an externality that green energy adoption is trying to alleviate.
Mangrove’s solutions to meet global demands for sustainable battery-grade lithium
Feedstock flexible high purity lithium
Mangrove is a feedstock flexible refining platform that can be integrated across the battery value chain and create a closed loop system. Mangrove produces a high purity battery-grade lithium in fewer steps than incumbent technologies.
Mangrove can co-locate near the point of lithium extraction or battery manufacturing, creating efficiencies and reducing OPEX and CAPEX across the lithium battery value chain. This also helps decrease the battery value chain’s carbon footprint and mitigate lithium supply chain vulnerabilities by decentralizing the refining process.
Eliminate waste products
Mangrove technology prevents the creation of waste byproducts with no commercial application. This eliminates the burden of disposal, an added cost for lithium producers. Mangrove’s only byproducts are acids, which can be recycled in lithium refining and extraction.