Unlocking Feedstocks for Battery-Grade Lithium

Learn how Mangrove Lithium is boosting battery-grade lithium production with its proprietary refining technology.

Author: Jose Francisco Velasco Davis

The demand for battery-grade lithium is on the rise as more and more businesses shift towards sustainable energy solutions. From electric vehicles to portable electronics, lithium-ion batteries are becoming the power source of choice for many industries.

However, sourcing battery-grade lithium can be a challenge. Lithium carbonate prices have reached record highs, supply chains are becoming more constrained, and geopolitical tensions are adding to production challenges. Not to mention, difficulties in extracting lithium from certain feedstocks can make some sources unviable.

With so much gridlock in the market, it’s more important than ever to find reliable and sustainable methods of producing battery-grade lithium. In order to unlock feedstocks, we need to reimagine the entire production process and eliminate steps that add unnecessary cost or complexity.

This shift in the industry requires a new type of player: one that is able to work with all feedstocks, integrate across the battery value chain, and produce a high-purity battery-grade product directly at the source.

Exploring the Current State of Lithium Extraction

Producing battery-grade lithium is a complex, multistage process. Lithium as a mineral can be found in underground deposits of brine, mineral ore, and clay, as well as in seawater and geothermal well brines/water. Extracting lithium requires a set of chemical processes where lithium is isolated from a sample and converted to a saleable form of lithium, generally a stable yet readily convertible compound such as lithium chloride or lithium sulfate. Most lithium extraction processes entail some form of mining to reach underground deposits of lithium-rich minerals or brines.

Yet, not all of these lithium sources are economically viable for large-scale production. To be cost-effective, the lithium extraction process must yield a high concentration of lithium while using as few resources as possible. Here’s a quick breakdown of the extraction process in different feedstocks.

Lithium Brine Extraction

Most of the world’s lithium is extracted from brine reservoirs, which are often located beneath salt flats (salars), in countries like Argentina, Chile, and China.

To extract lithium from brine, drilling is required to access the underground deposits. From there, the brine is pumped to the surface and distributed to evaporation ponds, where it is left to evaporate until only the lithium-rich solution remains. Both lithium chloride and lithium carbonate are produced from this evaporate concentration. Lithium hydroxide is refined from the collected lithium carbonate.

This process can take months or even years, depending on the size of the evaporation ponds and the amount of brine that needs to be processed. Facilities usually operate several ponds to speed up the evaporation process and produce battery-grade lithium carbonate or hydroxide.

Hard Rock and Spodumene Extraction

Hard rock mining involves extracting lithium-containing minerals from the earth. The most common mineral sources for commercial lithium production are spodumene and petalite, but a variety of other minerals can also be used, such as lepidolite, amblygonite, and eucryptite.

The first step in extracting lithium from these minerals is to crush the ore and pulverize it into a fine powder. This powder is then combined with water and chemical reactants, such as sulfuric acid, and heated to form a slurry. The slurry is filtered and concentrated through an evaporation process to form saleable sulfate, which can then be used to produce battery-grade lithium hydroxide.

Hard rock extraction accounts for a small percentage of the world’s lithium production–around 20 tons annually.

Other Extraction Methods

Other lithium extraction methods do exist, though many are limited by high costs, low yields, or lack of adequate technology. These methods include:

  • Hectorite clay extraction: Clay deposits are another potential source of lithium. Researchers have been working hard to develop techniques for extracting lithium from clay. So far, none of these techniques have proved economically viable.
  • Oil field brine: Lithium can also be extracted from oil field brines, which are a by-product of the oil drilling process. While this is an efficient method for extracting lithium, not all oil field brines are suitable for extraction, as mineral concentrations vary between basins.

Barriers to Global Battery Grade Lithium Production

Currently, Chile, Australia, Argentina, and China hold the largest global lithium reserves. Yet, more than 96% of spodumene exports from Australia are shipped to mainland China for production. Similarly, China remains one of the largest importers of Chile’s lithium carbonate exports. According to Benchmark Minerals, China currently produces 80% of refined battery chemicals, 66% of mid-stream cathode and anodes, and 73% of downstream lithium-ion battery cells.

This concentration of power creates a number of risks and challenges, both for the battery industry and for global geopolitics. First, it exposes the battery industry to significant supply risks. A prolonged downturn in Chinese demand, for example, could have a devastating impact on the global lithium market. Second, it gives China an outsized influence over the price and availability of lithium–a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries.

There is a great need for lithium independence in North American markets, not only for security but also to create a more level playing field in terms of pricing. Not to mention, we’ve seen this year how energy dependency can create significant supply disruptions around the world—such as in the case of Russia and the EU.

As the world moves towards clean energy sources, critical minerals like lithium will only become more important. And with that comes the need for new and innovative production methods to ensure a reliable and affordable supply.

Stuck in the Feedstock: North America’s Gridlocked Lithium Supply

While it’s clear that there are a number of potential sources of lithium, the majority of these sources are either undeveloped or uneconomic. This has created gridlock in the supply of battery-grade lithium.

As a result, the battery industry has been forced to rely on a small number of existing lithium mines. These mines are located in just a handful of countries, including Chile, Argentina, and China. This reliance creates a number of risks for battery manufacturers, including:

  • Geopolitical risk: Any disruption to supply from these countries could cause a major disruption to the battery supply chain.
  • Environmental risk: The mining and refining of lithium is a water-intensive process that can have a significant impact on local water resources.
  • Cost risk: The high concentration of existing mines gives these producers significant pricing power, which they have used to raise prices in recent years.

Governments have begun to take notice of this problem and are starting to invest in projects to develop new sources of lithium. In the United States, for example, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act for lithium production which will give the government more avenues to provide support for the mining, processing and recycling of critical materials.

In addition, North America and Europe have begun to invest in their own battery production capacity–committing to nearly tripling current production by 2028. This is a significant shift as most battery production has historically been concentrated in Asia.

But, to meet the increasing demand for battery-grade lithium, new refining techniques will need to be developed. Enter Mangrove Lithium.

Mangrove Lithium Brings Lithium Refining to the Source

Mangrove Lithium is a unique battery-grade lithium refining solution that directly converts lithium from a wide range of feedstocks into battery-grade lithium hydroxide. This is done using a two-step process that begins with lithium extraction from the feedstock material. The extracted lithium is then converted into battery-grade lithium hydroxide.

bottleneck at lithium refining stage

The beauty of Mangrove’s solution is that it doesn’t rely on a single feedstock material. This means that it can be adapted to whatever source material is available, whether it’s brine, hard rock, or clay. And because the process takes place at the source, there’s no need to transport the lithium to a central processing facility.

This flexibility sets Mangrove’s process apart from other methods of lithium production–and it’s why our platform has the potential to revolutionize the battery industry.

Moreover, our process is more efficient than traditional methods, reducing operating and capital expenses. And because we co-locate with extractors, we are able to eliminate several steps in the lithium refining process. This results in a high-purity product that is ideal for use in batteries.

Learn more about Mangrove’s technology and who we can work with today.