Processes without evaporation, water reuse, rapid production, recovery over 90%, brine reinjection and reduction of waste to «almost zero» were some of the trends presented in the seminar «Emerging Technologies of Extraction and Processing of Lithium», organized by the Mining Ministry and the Alta Ley Corporation, with the collaboration of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

With optimistic market projections, the exhibitors focused on the need to get on the value chain, boosting R&D and anticipating market needs with more sustainable technologies that protect the environmental balance of the reserves.

October, 2019.- “We want to do what the great powers like Australia do: increase production, take care of the environment, the relationship with communities and get on the value chain”. With that phrase, the Minister of Mining, Baldo Prokurica, began the seminar «Emerging Technologies of Lithium Extraction and Processing», organized by the portfolio and the Alta Ley Corporation, with the collaboration of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

The event, held on October 10th at the Hotel Almacruz, brought together 150 professionals, academics and industry executives, who were able to learn about the latest technologies available for more efficient and sustainable lithium extraction and processing, as well as market projections and the opportunities for the country in this scenario.

The Minister of Mining, Baldo Prokurica, said that «the speed with which changes are taking place in the world makes economic activities look at different proposals for more efficient and environmentally friendly technologies. Mining has taken important steps in this area and today we are getting to know proposals from various countries that are offering very interesting advances: producing lithium more efficiently, by reducing the period of water evaporation; and on the other hand, the reuse of water, which is the problem that most affects the extraction of this metal, which will boost the arrival of new producers without impacting this important resource worldwide ”.

For his part, CRU senior analyst, Víctor Rodríguez, presented the projections to 2025, ensuring that on that date there will be massive adoption of electric vehicles worldwide, one of the main applications of white ore. However, he said, it is necessary to boost innovation, since in the future lithium batteries will become solid, with the requirement of other minerals.

“The demand is very strong and electromobility is here. Chile will lose market share, but it will expand its capacity, and competitive pressures due to oversupply give it a competitive advantage: experience, natural and technological advantages are important to face a price drop. Becoming a Excellence Center in R&D is the first step to continue moving forward in the value chain” he said. He also stressed that while Chile has great competitive advantages in lithium carbonate, it does not have them in hydroxide, whose demand increases exponentially.

On the other hand, the professor of the Faculty of Chemistry and Engineering of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, Emilio Bunel, referred to alternatives to increase sustainability in lithium extractive processes. The expert said that while the batteries will continue to evolve, the need for lithium will not change for the next 20 to 30 years. However, he stressed, a long-term look is necessary. “Technologies evolve and what we have is a window of opportunities. If we don’t make the decisions today, we will miss the race. It’s most likely that in the future we will have solid state lithium batteries, which would replace lithium ion batteries. It may happen that Chile goes back in the value chain instead of moving forward, because these raw materials are not produced here. Therefore, we have to be prepared and hence the importance of R&D” he said, adding that for now it is necessary to find a different form of lithium extraction, since the evaporation of salt flats are low yielding and use a lot of water.

New alternatives: less water, more lithium, greater purity.

Representatives of five global companies – Solvay, Adionics, Eramet, Tenova and GHD – presented their processes and their environmental, economic and operational advantages over the traditional evaporation method used by companies in Chile.

The common factor?: an austere use of water, speed of production – the current method takes more than 18 months – climate independence and a higher percentage of recovery, over 90%. Additionally, the technologies point to greater purity, thus facing market pressure for higher quality lithium.

Ricardo Capanema, director of business development of the Belgian company Solvay, presented the CYANEX 936P technology, an extraction system that uses a magnet to concentrate, deposit the carbonate or hydroxide plant material and return the water resource, with 99% of Lithium recovery and production time of hours. “The price of lithium and the preference for hydroxide puts Chile at a disadvantage for producers with brine. We will not be able to compete if we continue as we are, so solvent extraction is a potential solution. These new technologies can change the future of the industry and allow this region to develop important competitiveness. ”

For his part, Guillaume di Souza, of the French Adionics, showed the green technology developed by the company. This is TSSA: Thermal Swing Salt Absortion, a process that works with temperature differences, without chemicals. “Our tests show more than 90% recovery of lithium, with 0% extraction of magnesium, boron, sulfates and potassium and very low affinity for sodium and calcium. The result is direct lithium extraction and production with 99% purity quickly, with low carbon footprint, less ponds, weather independence and almost no waste” he said

Another of the technologies presented allows solving one of the great problems of the traditional process: the use of water. ERAMET, a French company, created a sustainable lithium extraction process from brines. With recovery rates of 90%, the system allows to optimize the water balance since the purified brine of lithium and without contaminants returns to the salt flats. The company has a pilot plant that will allow from the first quarter 2020 to conduct tests with Chilean brine.

Federico Palacios, sales manager in Chile of the Israeli Tenova, explained the technology developed for the removal of calcium and magnesium, in extraction by lithium solvents and recovery by electrolysis. The system aims at high purity, over 99.9%. “The traces are removed by filtration and the inefficiencies are recirculated, the volume of water is reinjected into the salt flat with a minimum of drag, there is no evaporation of any kind, neither natural nor forced.

A challenging industry

Following the detailed presentation of emerging technologies, Patricio Dip, from the engineering company GHD, contributed his vision on the current challenges for engineering in the lithium industry. The professional explained that the main barrier to the entry of new technologies is tight investment and high demand. «The price, which reached 14 thousand dollars a ton of lithium carbonate, generated changes in term of timelines: everyone wants to enter the market quickly, and the engineering company is forced to speed up the processes,» he said.

The engineer stressed that the increase in the requirement to reach higher levels of quality in the product – higher levels of purity – and new electric vehicle technologies boost the increase in purity, with the prevailing need for technology to achieve higher levels of quality. “The batteries in solid state are entering very strong, that should be consensus among suppliers, the State and researchers. We have to innovate” he concluded.

The executive president of Alta Ley, Mauro Valdés, who after the presentation of each company moderated the discussion panel, said it was very challenging and interesting to be able to bring together different projects that are working on sustainable and innovative models of mineral processing and extraction. “The lithium industry has lower entry barriers than those of copper, therefore, it is very important to rapidly develop investment in lithium production. If we fall behind, other actors will be ahead of us. It is very gratifying to see that different companies worldwide are capturing this opportunity and solving operational and sustainability problems that will accelerate this process. ”

Seminar presentations can be reviewed here.