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Australia Co-Launches Novel Lithium Technology

Scientists at ANSTO, alongside a Perth-based company, have developed a world-first technology that can extract a greater amount of lithium from lithium mining waste, becoming a game-changer for the Australian lithium industry.

The demand for Lithium is being driven by the ever-expanding lithium-ion battery market which is a leading technology for portable electronics and electric vehicles. It has also revolutionised human life in the last 30 years. Moreover, Australia supplies approximately 60 per cent of the world’s lithium in the form of a mineral concentrate known as spodumene.

With an abundance of ‘hard rock’ lithium, Australia has some of the largest lithium deposits in the world. The conventional method of extracting lithium from spodumene is via a rotary kiln, necessitating temperatures of over 1000 °C and can only be applied to spodumene of a certain type and size.

This process is incredibly 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 in collaboration with the company have been working to address, is that these current techniques only recover between about 50 to 70 per cent of lithium from the original ore.

The two organisations designed and implemented a process called LieNA®, which removes the need for high-temperature processing and is ideally suited to the processing of the waste, and realising the majority of the (lithium) value from Australia’s hard rock deposits.

The LieNA® technology, which has been patented by the Perth-based firm, involves initial treatment of the waste spodumene with caustic under autoclave conditions to form synthetic lithium sodalite which can be easily recovered.

Lithium is then extracted with ease and purified in relatively straightforward, hydrometallurgical processing steps and finally isolated as lithium phosphate, which can be directly used in the manufacture of lithium Ferro-phosphate batteries.’ The new technology enables over 95% of the lithium value to be realised, with vastly reduced energy inputs as compared to conventional processing.

The Senior Process Chemist at ANSTO explained that the new technology can both improve the overall extraction and avoids the energy-intensive, high-temperature step of conventional spodumene processing. This increases the sustainability of lithium operations worldwide.

Until now, it has been quite accepted by the industry that a large amount of lithium will be ‘lost’ during processing. The team is the first in the world to achieve this efficient a level of extraction. This technology has massive potential for an industry which is integral to the transition to the electrification of transport, and ultimately to a cleaner and greener future.

In early 2020, the Perth-based firm was awarded AU$ 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.

The Chief Financial Officer at the Perth-based company stated that working with ANSTO to develop the LieNA® technology has been highly beneficial to the firm. Upcoming ESG regulations require the industry to identify and implement new ways to improve recoveries and shorten supply chains.

If commercialised, the novel technology has the potential to achieve both and, as an outcome, increased interest from lithium concentrate producers has been observed.

The Demand for lithium has reached record level highs and the amount of metal used has almost quadrupled in the last decade. The possibilities here are tremendous – some estimates are that the global lithium-ion battery market size will grow from US$ 41.1 billion in 2021 to US$ 116.6 billion by 2030.

Compared to lead-acid batteries, lithium-ion batteries lose less charge when not in use, and almost all lithium-ion battery components can be recovered and re-used. ANSTO has more than a 40-year track record of partnership with the mining and minerals industries, and a team of more than 60 dedicated professionals and technicians working in the Minerals business unit.

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