Salts and Battery

Recent interest in reviving mining in Cornwall, the United Kingdom, to obtain Lithium has been reported in The Memo.

A problem facing Cornwall, should the consortium discover sufficient concentrations of lithium, is that it will require large amounts of energy to extract. In Cornwall, geothermal springs are proposed to generate the energy needed. Another problem is what can be described as the law of diminishing marginal returns.

The largest share of commercial lithium, about 45%, is obtained from lithium minerals containing lithia, Li2O, such as spodumene, petalite and lepidolite. It is mined from fresh, unweathered zones in the pegmatite that are exposed in open pits. Mining is traditional drill and blast method with ore graded and stockpiled according to its mineralogical characteristics and grade, the largest producer being Talison Lithium in Greenbushes, Western Australia. This is a relatively cheap way of mining and is easily scaled up.

In Salar de Atacama, Chile, Albermarle Corporation supplied 33% of the total world supply, 43,000 metric tonnes (MT), in 2017 from brines harvested in the desert. Lesser production is on the Tibetan plateau, China (Lake Zabuye after which the mineral zabuyelite, a form of lithium carbonate, Li2CO3, is named), and in Zimbabwe, Nevada, USA, and Argentina where the water in the lithium brine is allowed to evaporate from salt pools using the sun as a power source. This takes a year or so but is very cost effective. Where so-called forced evaporation techniques are utilised, costs increase and margins for profit become squeezed.

There are other potential sources of lithium in existence. A massive deposit has been found in Sichuan, China, and has started to be exploited; Bikita Minerals in Masvingo province, Zimbabwe, is said to have a deposit of 11 million tonnes of lithium bearing ore and in Canada, significant deposits suitable for open pit mining have been found in Quebec, Ontario, and Northwest Territories.

Lithium is not an abundant mineral, but it is by no means rare, so, theoretically, there is sufficient supply to meet world current and potential future annual demand, which, by 2025 is expected to be in the region of 1 Million MT. Other minerals such as nickel and cobalt or even manufactured products such as graphene are more likely to be the constrained variables.

This implies that the current price levels for lithium are unlikely to become the norm and industry veterans speaking at the BMO Global Metals and Mining Conference in February this year predict a price plateau of less than $15 per kilogram for battery grade lithium carbonate stretching to 2025 and hold a similar outlook for lithium hydroxide.

But that is not the whole picture. Unlike gold, silver, iron, oil and coal, lithium is not really a freely-traded mineral. Indeed, most lithium trades are between a very small number of suppliers and a slightly larger pool of users. According to Macquarie Bank, just four suppliers control 85% of production. Chile’s SQM and U.S. companies, FMC Corp and Albemarle Corporation, are the three major players, all extracting lithium from salt lakes in Chile and Argentina. Albemarle Corporation also operates a brine operation in Nevada using geothermal power for evaporation. The fourth producer is the Australian Talison, which produces lithium at the Greenbushes mine in Western Australia. But it is not an independent, being 49%-owned by Albemarle Corporation and 51% by China’s Tianqi Lithium, which takes almost all the mine’s output for processing in China.

Recent rises in lithium prices, six-fold since 1980, have encouraged many miners to construct large-scale mining and production facilities such as the Altura Mining Company’s Pilgangoora project in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia. Indeed, since Chile and SQM have come to an agreement concerning increased production levels, and Bolivia’s national lithium company, Comibol, which has access to a reported 25% of the world’s resources in its 10,000 square kilometres Salar de Uyuni salt flat, the world’s largest, has started making nominal shipments of refined lithium carbonate, it may be the case that production levels match or even exceed demand. However, the political environment in Bolivia has yet to inspire interested companies to assist Comibol to develop production.

As Motley Fool says – “One key risk I see with lithium is not that supply increases and prices fall (though that is a key risk), it’s that the miners spend big on marginal expansions or poor acquisitions. If you’re going to be a long-term owner of lithium miners, their capital allocation decisions are going to prove at least as important as the growth in electric vehicles demand, even though people focus on the latter and basically ignore the former.” Thus, the great danger for production is that, as a marginal producer, it is very easily destroyed by a sudden fall in prices.

But that is still not the whole picture. On the demand side, lithium use is increasing almost exponentially. In 2015, the total demand was somewhere between 163,000 and 184,000 tonnes, 40 per cent (approximately 65,000 – 74,000 tonnes) of which went into lithium-ion batteries, ceramics and glass accounted for 25 per cent, with medicines, greases and polymers making up much of the rest. If lithium-ion batteries are to become the reservoir of energy that Tesla, and the major car manufacturers think they will, then use of lithium for energy storage will likely triple within the next decade and supply will need to rise equally. However, it is a truism that technological innovation is overestimated in the short-term and underestimated in the long-term. This is illustrated by the hype-cycle which engineers will instantly recognise as a second-order response to an impulse input.

The Hype Loop

(source: The Hype Circle – Wikipedia)

Things rarely continue as expected. Lithium-ion batteries may be an exception but it is unlikely. At the moment, lithium-ion energy storage consists of putting batteries, slightly bigger than size AA, in series. The Tesla car has roughly 8,000 of these in series packed in the car’s base, as does every other electric car manufacturer we checked. This is not a bad thing as the majority of the safety and recharging issues have been addressed and further advances are expected. Tesla’s Powerwall, which is used domestically and as grid storage in California, is a package of little batteries. Tesla, along with several others, has a solution for the problems of venting, thermal runaway and cell ageing. This is done with minimal decrease in energy density. There is also a less acknowledged issue of the multiple connection points required. Many connections with slight differential heating and cooling creates numerous failure points. Such failures are quite rare, making such systems relatively more secure than many others, but they will occur.

There are research teams all over the world searching for fixes for the various issues that need to be addressed. This includes infusing electrolytes with nano-diamonds (exquisitely small carbon particles to halt dendritic growth of short-circuit paths), or graphene balls, or even graphene-based batteries.

There is also active research continuing in all aspects of batteries, from anode, cathode, separator membranes, solid-state electrolytes allowing lithium metal anodes, safety, thermal control, packaging, to cell construction and battery management. Lithium-air (Li-O2) and Lithium-sulphur (Li-S) can achieve impressively high-energy density in theory and have again attracted much attention recently. Although zinc-air and high-temperature sodium-sulphur have been commercialised for a while, the development of rechargeable Li-O2 and Li-S batteries still have some technical barriers such as low-cycle efficiency and dendrite growth.

Though not energy dense, we have sodium-manganese salt water batteries for large storage, which are both inexpensive and safe. Flow batteries also come into the equation but are large and much less efficient (though are considered viable up to 10 MWh). Researchers, at Washington State University, are working on graphene-based sodium-ion batteries that might provide a less expensive, viable alternative to lithium-ion batteries. Sodium batteries are unable to hold as much energy, but their low cost makes them attractive for mid- to large-scale energy storage systems, such as for storing energy from solar power or wind farms.

Of course, energy storage for elimination of grid failures and fluctuations seems a given, but energy storage for moving, flying and sailing vehicles is not necessarily a necessity since wireless energy transfer may become available in decades to come. There already exist patents for Casimir Effect engines which use the virtual energy to drive space vehicles (the Cannae Drive). These are postulated as possible spaceship drives. For more earth-bound needs, power needs to be transmitted through either capacitive coupling (still largely inimical to human well-being) or resonant inductive coupling which might be possible for road-traversing vehicles (providing they stick to prescribed routes) or radiative coupling using lasers or microwaves.

The conclusion of mining lithium for enterprise purposes in Cornwall include many factors: social, political and strategic. Financial gain is not one.

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