Kyle Schurman
Nov 21, 2011

Recharging U.S. lithium supply with recycling

With the number of rechargeable batteries in use worldwide on the rise, so to does the demand for lithium climb, which has prompted a startup company to begin capturing the metal from waste materials.


Lithium is the key component of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. With a li-ion battery, ions from the metal lithium move from a negative electrode to a positive electrode in the battery, generating the electrical power.


Take a look around your home and start counting all of the li-ion batteries you own. Any of the rechargeable batteries in your laptop computers, smartphones and digital cameras must be charged on a regular basis. Our shift toward a mobile society couldn’t occur without good li-ion batteries, which currently causes a worldwide demand for lithium of about 100,000 tons, according to market statistics.


While the number of li-ion batteries included in these mobile devices is large, most of the batteries themselves are small. Those involved in the rechargeable battery industry say that’s about to change, though.


With more vehicle manufacturers developing electric automobiles – all of which make use of lithium in the battery configuration – not only will the number of lithium-based batteries climb quickly, but so too will the size of those batteries. This change in the market for rechargeable batteries should more than triple worldwide demand for lithium by the end of this decade.


Producing lithium is a bit of a time-consuming process. In Chile, which is one of the world’s largest lithium-producing countries, a brine is mixed with a pool of water outdoors. The brine is mined from the earth and contains various metals, such as magnesium and lithium.


As the sun slowly evaporates the water/brine mixture, which can require up to two years, a lithium chloride compound is left behind. Manufacturers then must turn the lithium chloride into lithium carbonate through another chemical process.


As with most precious metals, the process of mining the lithium brine is more expensive in some parts of the world than others. In Chile, it can be done for a much lower cost, which is why that country has become a primary exporter of lithium carbonate.


The startup company, Simbol Materials in California, plans to produce its lithium in an inexpensive manner by avoiding the mining process and using recycling.


Simbol Materials obtains its brine from geothermal plants in the United States. During the process of creating energy, a geothermal plant will pump brine found far inside the earth through the plant. Because the brine naturally contains heat, due its origins from deep within the earth, it generates steam as it moves through the plant, thus driving a turbine and creating energy.


Once the brine cools, it no longer can produce the steam required to drive the turbine. Most companies simply return the brine to the spot deep in the earth from where it came, in a process called re-injection.


However, Simbol Materials is now diverting the brine. The company filters the brine, pulling out the various metals, before re-injecting it.


With the raw materials extracted from the brine, Simbol Materials must purify them, and that’s where proprietary techniques kick into the process. Simbol Materials expects to create metals quality enough to compete with providers worldwide, while maintaining a competitive price.


Currently, the company is only using the process on a small amount of brine, about 20 gallons per minute. Eventually, Simbol Materials expects that a newly constructed plant, expected to be completed next year, will allow it to produce about 16,000 tons of lithium carbonate each year. It’s possible that this process could help fund geothermal plants, too, creating this “green” energy source for a lower price.


Other companies are looking into lithium production, too, in an effort to meet the expected demand growth over the next several years. In fact, some market experts say if all of the planned lithium mining operations worldwide reach their goals by 2020, production of lithium carbonate will be almost 100,000 tons over what is required, even with the expected increase in the number of electric vehicles behind sold.


That’s quite a few lithium mining companies that are betting on an industry that doesn’t exactly have a history of success. Remember the strong push toward electric cars in the early 1990s? If not, don’t feel bad – it didn’t last long. The GM EV1 car and Ford Ranger EV pickup truck didn’t exactly drive the popularity meter.


Certainly, today’s electric vehicle designs, such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, are better than those models from 20 years ago, both in terms of how they perform and how they look. Still, no one really knows how consumers are going to react to the higher cost of electric vehicles versus gasoline-powered cars. In a tough economic environment, will a lot of people be willing to pay a premium to drive an electric car? It seems unlikely. People like the idea of living a green lifestyle, until their pocketbooks demand otherwise.


Even if the electric vehicles drive the demand for lithium as high as expected, some of the planned lithium mining operations are still going to fail because of over-production. In a competitive market for lithium mining, it stands to reason that a company like Simbol Materials would have a leg up, by using recycled material.


Furthermore, if electric vehicle usage doesn’t expand as predicted, the lithium mining companies perhaps can find additional markets for their products that require large batteries in this mobile market.


Maybe smartphones could use extra battery space to become even smarter? Perhaps a giant battery for a giant iPad? With the potential for a market flooded with over-supplied, ultra-cheap li-ion batteries on the horizon, almost anything is possible.