Voices: Theodore Z. Sutton and Scott Cooper | The challenge of lithium ion batteries

Clean energy from lithium ion batteries is seen as the future. But what are the challenges facing today’s developers of lithium-based technologies? As the demand for lithium, a soft, silver-white metallic element, has grown, so have the obstacles to its widespread use as an energy source.

Developing new battery technologies is called for by the market. In response to fuel cost and climate change concerns the demand for electric vehicles has dramatically increased. As well, with consumers favoring more environmentally friendly products, the overall interest in clean battery power has surged. Batteries based on lithium, the lightest of all metals, are believed to hold the most promise. But challenges to their development remain.

At the forefront of electric car innovation and production is Tesla, a Palo Alto-based company founded by billionaire Elon Musk. Tesla has generated significant interest as construction is finished on its $5 billion Gigafactory outside of Reno. Tesla’s new factory is designed to efficiently produce the lithium ion batteries that power its cars and will someday power homes and other energy draws.

Tesla’s reputation as a producer of high priced, electric luxury cars is well known. Last year Tesla delivered just 50,658 vehicles, and at those numbers the lithium battery pack itself is estimated to cost $10,000. According to Tesla, the Gigafactory will be capable of producing enough batteries to supply 500,000 more moderately priced vehicles by 2020. By scaling up production, Tesla claims that it will drive down the cost of batteries by 30 percent or more.

As Tesla’s production increases, so does its demand for lithium, an essential component in the lithium ion batteries. Traditionally, much of the global lithium supply comes from Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Australia, where it is shipped thousands of miles to be manufactured into batteries. The extraction process in these countries is neither efficient nor environmentally friendly. For a company trying to make clean energy products, shipping raw materials halfway around the world seems a little counterintuitive.

Fortunately for Tesla, Nevada is home to the only operational lithium mine in the United States. The Silver Peak mine is located in the Clayton Valley of southwestern Nevada and is only a three and a half hour drive from the Gigafactory. Tesla hopes this local source will be able to provide the lithium needed to produce its batteries. International conglomerate Albemarle currently operates the Silver Peak mine, and may soon have competition. The Clayton Valley region is ripe with new mining exploration and development. In addition to Albemarle’s mine, Pure Energy Minerals, Sunrise Gold Corp, Lithium X, and others are also developing lithium properties in the valley 30 miles west of Goldfield.

Pure Energy Minerals has taken center stage in Nevada lithium exploration, inking an early stage agreement with Tesla to provide an undisclosed amount of lithium for under market prices. The Vancouver-based junior mining company is currently engaged in exploratory drilling around its 9,000-acre claim in Clayton Valley. The company initially estimates it has 816,000 metric tons of high-quality lithium carbonate on the claim. Early results have been promising, and if they bear out, the site would triple lithium reserves in the United States.

Locally present lithium is a plus, but how do you remove it? The most common method of extraction involves evaporation ponds, which are used to separate lithium from its accompanying salts. While this method is an industry standard, there are many issues associated with the process. The ponds can cover a surface area of upwards of 4,000 acres, require large amounts of water, and use toxic chemicals for separation. For all this impact, the ponds recover less than 50 percent of the lithium found in the salts, further highlighting that more improvements need to be made.

More efficient methods are on the horizon. Italian-based Tenova Bateman’s new LiSX technology quickly removes other compounds from the ore and isolates the lithium, all within the time span of eight hours. Initial studies have also shown that there was a 100 percent extraction rate, and the lithium had a purity greater than 99.9 percent. The LiSX technology only needs about 10,000 square meters of space, will eliminate waste piles and recycle solvents used in the extraction process. It will also remove the need to depend upon the weather to extract lithium.

Lithium is favored due to its high energy density. The amount of energy stored in lithium per unit of volume is superior to other elements. With car weight an issue, lighter is better. But for lithium-ion particles to shift efficiently between electrodes, combustible compounds must be added and pressurized within the battery. If the heat generated during charging is not controlled or if the battery is punctured these volatile chemicals can burst into flames.

Samsung’s woes related to its Galaxy Note 7 smartphone and recall — recently extended to the replacement phones — illustrates this potentially dangerous tendency. The Federal Aviation Administration is now mandating tougher safeguards, and orders that all Galaxy 7s be completely turned off in the cabin As well, lithium battery fires have damaged electric vehicles over the last several years. The Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius, Dodge Ram and Tesla Model S, among other brands, have all experienced battery fires, either during recharging or in vehicle accidents. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working with manufacturers to develop appropriate standards. The nickel-based batteries used in most hybrid vehicles do not pose the same challenges.

While scientists are searching for meaningful improvements, Elon Musk has been quoted saying that battery technology will only see moderate improvements over time.

Lithium ion batteries have also encountered recycling issues. Currently, the lithium recovery rate is only 5 percent, and the process is difficult and expensive. Old lithium batteries are toxic, flammable, and highly reactive. Many of these discarded batteries end up in landfills, where surrounding environments can be impacted as the batteries degrade.

For their recycling process, Tesla plans on having a battery recycling facility on the same site where the Gigafactory is located. They have been working with battery recycler Umicore in Europe to allow the material in old lithium ion batteries to be reused. Studies have shown that Tesla and Umicore have recovered 70 percent of the material from spent lithium ion batteries, and saved at least 70 percent on emissions when the metals in the battery are recovered and refined. In due time, these methods should not only improve, but will also be implemented on a much larger scale.

Given all the many issues, will the challenges of lithium be overcome and result in a reliable efficient battery? Time will tell. If Tesla and others can perfect their lithium production and recycling processes, lithium technology may play a vital role in our future.

Theodore Z. Sutton is a mining engineering student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He grew up in Reno and attended the Sugar Bowl Academy. Scott Cooper is a pre-law student at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, NH, and graduated from Wooster High School’s International Baccalaureate program.


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