Australia charges ahead with new lithium technology
Scientists at ANSTO together with Lithium Australia claim to have developed a world-first technology to extract more lithium from lithium mining waste, in what they say is a game changer for the Australian lithium industry.
Lithium demand is being driven by the ever-expanding lithium-ion battery market; Australia supplies about 60% of the world’s lithium in the form of a mineral concentrate called spodumene. With an abundance of ‘hard rock’ lithium, we are among the countries with the largest lithium deposits globally.
The conventional way of extracting lithium from spodumene is in a rotary kiln, which requires very high temperatures (>1000°C) and can only be applied to spodumene of a certain type and size. The process is highly energy intensive, and the constraints placed on the feed applicable to this process result in a large proportion of the lithium in these hard rock deposits being wasted.
The issue scientists at ANSTO together with Lithium Australia have been working to address is that these current techniques only recover about 50–70% of the lithium from the original ore.
As a result, the two organisations have developed a process called LieNA, which removes the need for high-temperature processing and is ideally suited to processing of the waste, and realising the majority of the (lithium) value from Australia’s hard rock deposits.
Patented by Lithium Australia, the LieNA technology involves an initial treatment of the waste spodumene with caustic under autoclave conditions to form a synthetic lithium sodalite, which can be easily recovered.
Lithium is then easily extracted and purified in relatively straightforward, hydrometallurgical processing steps and finally isolated as lithium phosphate, which can be directly used in manufacture of lithium ferro-phosphate batteries.
The new technology enables the majority (>95%) of the lithium value to be realised, with vastly reduced energy inputs compared to conventional processing.
Driving costs down and getting more from the rocks
Dr Chris Griffith, Senior Process Chemist at ANSTO, said not only does the new technology improve the overall extraction, it avoids the energy-intensive, high-temperature step of conventional spodumene processing, and increases the sustainability of lithium operations worldwide.
“Until now, it has been quite accepted by industry that a large amount of lithium is ‘lost’ during processing. We’re the first in the world to achieve such an efficient level of extraction,” he said. “This technology really has huge potential for an industry which is integral to our transition to the electrification of transport, and ultimately to a cleaner and greener future.”
In early 2020, Lithium Australia was awarded $1.3 million from the federal government’s Department of Industry, Science and Technology CRC-P Round 8 program. The overall objective of the CRC-P program is to progress the development of LieNA to a feasibility-study level and eventual commercialisation of the LieNA technology.
“ANSTO has been pleased to work with Lithium Australia Limited on processing technology development since 2015, and it is sensational to see the LieNA technology reach this stage,” Griffith said.
An industry partnership with huge potential for the Australian economy
Stuart Tarrant, Chief Financial Officer at Lithium Australia, said, “Partnering with ANSTO to develop the LieNA technology has been highly beneficial to Lithium Australia. Upcoming ESG regulations are forcing the industry to consider ways to improve recoveries and shorten supply chains.
“If commercialised, LieNA has the potential to achieve both and as an outcome we have experienced higher interest from lithium concentrate producers,” he said.
Demand for lithium has reached record-level highs and the amount of metal used has almost quadrupled in the last decade.
“Innovation like this puts Australia in a good position to move away from simply supplying a mineral concentrate to overseas converters as quickly as possible,” said Griffith. “It provides another avenue for Australia to maximise the value from our valuable critical and energy mineral resources and allows us to conduct more value-adding downstream processing here in Australia.”
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