The performance of Li-ion
batteries and ESS is partly determined by the purity of
the raw materials that make them (source: Leslie
The growth in applications of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries
is expected to put pressure on supplies of the minerals that
make up their constituent parts. Aside from their namesake
ingredient – lithium – Li-ion batteries also
require the minerals graphite, cobalt and sometimes nickel and
aluminium as raw materials.
Question marks hang over how to secure future
supply of these minerals and, just as importantly, how to avoid
bottlenecks in processing them to the required
Because applications for Li-ion batteries are
constantly evolving, emphasis has moved to the purity of
battery minerals. This topic is particularly pertinent for the
electric vehicle (EV) battery market, which requires
lighter-weight and higher-density batteries in order to
maximise the efficiency of these cars and make them competitive
on performance with their hydrocarbon-guzzling peers.
Purity, and how to achieve it, is the new debate
in the battery minerals sphere and suppliers are confident that
they will be able to command premium prices for highly refined
products. However, for consumers deciding whether or not to
switch to a technology based on price, and for manufacturers
eager to preserve margins while building volume sales, there is
also a query over the cost-benefit of paying more for materials
that make their products perform just that little bit
Demand – More than just
Energy consumption: Natural vs
synthetic graphite production
High purity graphite made
from natural graphite ore has a distinct
cost advantage over synthetic material in terms of the
in the manufacturing process (source: AMG
Li-on battery-powered applications now span much
more than the widely touted examples of smart phones, tablet
computers and EVs. Across the world, the technology is now used
in satellites, submarines, ships, aircraft and military
equipment, among other high-performing technologies and
Outside the world of EVs, the main
growth area is energy storage systems (ESS) – static
battery packs designed to store and release energy to power
homes, top up fluctuations in traditional grid systems and
provide off-grid electricity to industry and communities.
EVs and ESS require different things from a
Li-ion battery. Desirable characteristics for EVs are small
size and light weight, since the battery needs to be carried by
the car it powers. ESS batteries can afford to be bulky and
heavy, however, since they remain stationary.
Would-be suppliers of battery minerals have been
quick to take up authoritative positions on this topic in order
to explain and promote the essential role their products will
play in the green technology revolution.
"For an EV, the purity of the raw material that
makes up the battery is upmost," Julien Davy, chief operating
officer (COO) at TSX-V-listed exploration company, Stria
Lithium Inc., told IM. "If, for example, your
anode is bad quality, then you will have issues with your
charging systems," he explained.
Stria has developed a technology which allows for
low cost lithium production using a chlorination process from
spodumene. The process can create 99.99% pure lithium metal
which, Stria says, is almost double the value of 99.9% lithium
metal. This can be transported in mineral oil, or converted via
simple reactions to lithium carbonate or hydroxide.
The source material for this process comes from
the Pontax and Wilcox lithium projects, which Stria is
developing in Quebec, Canada, and Arizona, US,
Stria is just one arm of a connected network of
young businesses looking to capitalise on the new technology
wave. It shares its management with Canadian graphite junior,
Focus Graphite Inc. and graphene developer, Grafoid Inc.
– all of which are targeting clean energy applications
with their products.
According to Focus, its graphite, which it
sources from the Lac Knife deposit in Quebec, can also be
produced in a purer form. The company’s COO, Jeff
Hussey, told IM that, through floatation
processes, Focus’ Lac Knife pilot plant can
achieve 98% C purity graphite. Once it hits this level, it only
takes one further minor process to bring it up to 99.999%
purity spherical graphite – the material used in
Li-ion battery anodes – via thermal purification.
Hussey says that the type of spherical graphite
produced by Focus fetches around $8,000/tonne, while the
material’s main competitor, synthetic graphite,
made from processed petroleum coke, costs
Other companies, including established mining and
specialised processing groups like Germany-based AMG Graphite
(formerly known as Graphite Kropfmuehl), which produces and
sells anode grade graphite material, have also stated that
natural spherical graphite has a distinct economic advantage
over synthetic material.
According to a recent investor presentation by
AMG, it takes 200% more energy (7,500 kWh) to produce one tonne
of synthetic graphite than it does to produce a tonne of
natural material (2,500 kWh) with similar carbon content and
Hussey also pointed out that natural graphite
tends to be more resilient to loss after recharging. In
February this year, the company published test results showing
that its own carbon-coated spherical graphite yielded a 99.35%
efficient Li-ion battery, compared to commercial synthetic
spherical coated graphite, showing 93.5% and 96.5% efficiency,
Get pedalling: E-bikes are
among the wave of new products powered by Li-ion
batteries expected to drive demand growth
(source: Ciclismo Italia)
A crowded space
A large number of companies are engaged in
extracting high-purity Li-ion battery minerals, according to
Lilia Xie, research associate at consultancy, Lux
California-based sustainable materials technology
company, Simbol Materials Inc., in 2013 produced what it
claimed was the world’s first battery grade
lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) at 99.99%
purity from a geothermal brine using an electrolysis
Northern Graphite Corp. claims to have developed
a proprietary method for the purification of concentrates and
spheroidised graphite to 99.95% using ore from its Bissett
Creek graphite property in Ontario and says that the cost of
this purification process is less than $1,000/tonne.
Vancouver-headquartered miner Eagle Graphite Inc.
also says it has produced 99.995% pure spheronised graphite
from a sample of flake graphite taken from its Black Crystal
project in British Columbia.
Earlier this year, ASX-listed Syrah Resources Ltd
announced that it had successfully produced uncoated battery
grade spherical graphite using natural flake material from its
Balama graphite project in Mozambique and that samples have
been distributed for testing to Japanese anode and battery
The company is also looking into the possibility
of building 25,000 tpa spherical graphite plants in both
Mozambique and the US to supply the battery market.
Reagent and labour costs dominate
opex for both brine and hard
rock lithium operations
Source: Lin Yuan,
Purity isn’t everything
As the market for rechargeable batteries matures,
getting the minerals out of the ground will only be half of the
supply story. More and more technology-related investments are
likely to occur to enhance purity, and with this increased
competition, costs should come down.
Jon Hykawy, president of consultancy Stormcrow
Capital, says that this diversification of purification methods
is inevitable for a good reason. "Purity is not overstated, or
at least not markedly so, in my opinion," Hykawy told
"The biggest factor in causing serious failure in
a Li-ion battery cell is dendritic growth – the growth
of little metal 'whiskers’ that can cross the
electrolyte and separator and cause an electrical short circuit
between cathode and anode."
"This is primarily an effect of some metals in
the lithium-based cathode compound or the graphite on the anode
leaching out over time and then growing into these little
whiskers due to electric field."
However, the purity of the lithium and of the
graphite going into the battery is not enough to prevent this
problem. The anode in a Li-ion battery is composed of natural
graphite, usually coated in pure synthetic graphite designed to
optimise the surface of the spheres and protect the rest of the
battery from the 'dirtier’ natural graphite.
"Depending on how thick and uniform that coating
of synthetic graphite is, the natural graphite inside does not
have to be that clean," Hykawy told IM.
The expensive solution to dentritic growth is to
use all-synthetic graphite in a battery, but for cost reasons
this is unattractive to Li-ion battery manufacturers.
The purity of the lithium going into the
lithium-based cathode material might end up being only loosely
coupled to the purity of the final chemical compound. This is
because the purity of the nickel, aluminum and cobalt in the
cathode material is just as important as the purity of the
Since there are so many mining and exploration
companies looking to place their material into the high value
battery market, most will invest at least some money –
and a few may invest a lot – in finding ways of making
sure their minerals can be used for the job.
But according to Hykawy, there may not be a right
answer. "I guess the answer is that it really
isn’t clear just how pure the raw lithium or raw
natural graphite going into a lithium battery need to be," he
Lux Research’s Xie points out that
battery producers such as Tesla Motors, Foxconn, Samsung, LG
and BYD have not made public the effect of the purity of raw
materials on battery performance. Without this analysis, it is
tricky to know whether purity of the mineral, beyond a certain
minimum threshold, will be a factor to consider in their
High performance may even be a self-defeating
goal for battery manufacturers. Since the time Henry
Ford’s motor cars first rolled off the production
line in Detroit, built-in obsolescence has been an important
factor in the consumer market.
The eponymous Ford famously said that he wanted
his customers to only buy his cars once – a measure of
the quality of the vehicle. Sales of Ford went on to be
surpassed in 1931 by competitor General Motors, which
implemented annual model-year design changes to convince
consumers to buy a replacement each year.
EV manufacturers and ESS providers may find
themselves treading the same tightrope between performance and
sales. Given that cars are also depreciating assets, and that
EVs are a relatively new addition to the car market, it remains
to be seen what resale values will be like for cars whose
expensive batteries only have a limited lifecycle.
"For battery producers it will probably always be
a balancing act of purity versus cost," said Xie.
Improvements in technology
are bringing down the amount of lithium
carbonate required by HEVs. Purer, higher performing
could see volumes come down further (source:
Ev-sales.blogspot.com, Hybridcars.com, Insideevs.com,
Argonne Laboratories - via Juan Carlos
Sustainability concerns may be equally important
to the consumer as a Li-ion performance, points out Stria
Lithium’s Davy. In the case of Tesla, it tapped
into the conscientious consumer’s supply chain,
and possibly patriotic, concerns by announcing that it would
source all of its materials close to home in North America,
rather than racking up carbon footprint by transporting them
from Asia, or elsewhere in the world.
This presented Tesla with a challenge, in that
the cheapest, supply-ready sources of the materials it needed
were likely to be outside North America (located in China for
graphite, Chile for lithium and the Democratic Republic of
Congo [DRC] for cobalt). The company has been working hard to
bring down the price of its battery packs and, ultimately, the
cars they power, so minimising input costs is important.
In the arenas of EVs and ESS, green
conscientiousness is likely to exert a strong influence,
because its customer base originates from those concerned about
the sustainability of their choices. But, for environmental
(and possibly even commercial) reasons, Tesla
doesn’t want to just preach to the
Until green technology products come to compete
on price with conventional models in the mass market, which,
for EVs, is expected to happen around 2020, it is
sustainability-conscious consumers that will drive sales.
"If you buy a battery and it is produced in a
'greener’ way, then that is a great marketing tool
for all of us," said Davy. Stria Lithium uses a recyclable
process to extract its lithium, by mixing together recycled
chlorine and hydrochloric acid to purify the lithium.
In Nevada, Pure Energy Minerals has been working
with Italy-based Tenova Bateman Technologies to conduct lithium
recovery process testing of brine samples while doing away with
capex/opex intensive evaporation ponds, and their large
environmental footprints, at Pure Energy’s Clayton
Tenova’s LiSX process was developed
at the company’s research facility in Israel and
is an advanced solvent extraction technology that efficiently
extracts lithium from brine or other feedstocks in less than 12
hours – a method which feeds into what Pure
Energy’s CEO, Robert Mintak, refers to as the
company’s "invisible mining" operation.
However, in order to supply the quantity of
lithium that could be needed in the market by 2020, the
industry may also have to look at hard rock and clay lithium
extraction, which is more capital intensive and implies a
greater environmental impact than brine-based production
Upfront investment and energy is needed in
drilling for hard rock lithium, with little guarantee of
success until the pre-feasibility study (PFS) confirms the
potential viability of developing the resource.
But the concentration of lithium supplies in
Chile, which accounts for around 55% of world production, means
that other lithium reserves need to be identified for supply
security reasons, and some of these will be hard rock.
Investment in extracting and processing purer
lithium from hard rock mining will be key, said Davy. "If it is
to be successful, it must be able to produce better quality
lithium at a cheaper rate than the brine industry."
Lithium Australia, known until recently as Cobre
Montana NL, an ASX-listed mineral explorer, is working on a
process of extracting lithium carbonate from lithium-bearing
micas with a "zero energy footprint".
"The process we’ve developed removes
the high-energy step used in conventional processing that gives
you all the financial grief," the company’s
managing director, Adrian Griffin told IM.
He explained how the method, developed in
collaboration with Perth-based Strategic Metallurgy Pty Ltd and
tested on sites in Australia and the Czech Republic, skips the
roasting stage usually required to prepare lithium ores for
While energy intensive roasting is economical for
high grade ores such as spodumene, which typically consists of
around 6% lithium oxide (Li2O), the industry has so
far not been able to make this work economically for micas,
which usually grade at between 2% and 4% Li2O.
Lithium Australia’s process uses
waste heat generated from the dilution of sulphuric acid with
water – creating the reagent needed to dissolve the
lithium-bearing mica – to provide the energy needed to
leach lithium from its host rock.
Having successfully used the technology earlier
this year to produce battery grade lithium carbonate from the
Cinovec lithium deposit in the Czech Republic, where Lithium
Australia is "in agreement to joint venture on a 50:50 basis"
with the site’s licence holder, fellow ASX-listed
European Metals Ltd, the company is now proving the process at
a Perth-based mini plant with samples from its Western
Australian Lepidolite Hill deposit.
However, developing and testing a new, green
production method on a demonstration scale is only part of the
"Before you can commercialise a technology, you
have to get market acceptance for the product it produces, and
to do that you need to put product into the market that
potential customers can test," Griffin said.
Consumers do not just want small carbon
footprints – they are keen to know that the mining
industry is ethical. This is where corporate and social
responsibility regarding battery minerals could fall
Cobalt, a key battery mineral, is principally
sourced from the DRC, which holds one of the
world’s worst records for militia-controlled mines
and child labour.
Cobalt is a key ingredient in lithium cobalt
oxide, typically used in handheld Li-ion devices and in lithium
nickel cobalt aluminium oxide in rechargeable batteries. Nearly
half of the world’s mined cobalt is produced as a
by-product of copper mining in the DRC and Zambia.
According to the International Monetary
Fund’s 2013 figures, the DRC is the
world’s poorest country. It is also one of the
richest in the world in terms of mineral wealth. With few
primary deposits of cobalt globally, Li-ion batteries are
likely to continue to be reliant on this source for the
The presence of cobalt in rechargeable batteries
undermines any investment in environmentally friendly
production methods for lithium and graphite, according to Lux
If investment takes place in improving extraction
methods, it should be done as a means in itself, rather than to
'ethicalise’ the end product the minerals go into,
since achieving this would require an overhaul of international
governance in the medium term, rather than just clever
Impure sources: DRC, one of
the poorest and most war-torn countries in the world,
is also the one of the biggest global suppliers of
cobalt (source: MONUSCO
Producers of battery minerals should be
preoccupied with sources of lithium hydroxide, according to Lux
Research’s Xie. The availability of lithium
hydroxide, refined from lithium carbonate, is more important to
rechargeable batteries than the purity of lithium
Lithium hydroxide produces better-performing
battery cathodes, according to Xie, because the mineral
contains more lithium than lithium carbonate does. While
lithium carbonate is composed of 18% lithium by weight, lithium
hydroxide contains 39% lithium.
Japan’s Panasonic Corp., which will
manufacture and supply cylindrical Li-ion cells on behalf of
Tesla, has specified that it will use lithium hydroxide in its
"Lithium hydroxide is a superior starting
material. It has better morphology, better crystallinity, makes
better cathodes, than lithium carbonate," said Xie.
According to figures from Chilean market
intelligence business Signumbox, demand for lithium hydroxide
is set to grow by 267.4% between now and 2025 to 183,303
tonnes. This is compared to demand growth of 166.9% to 253,739
tonnes lithium carbonate for the same period.
As a percentage of total lithium demand, by 2025
lithium hydroxide will make up 33.9% of the total 540,119
tonnes of expected demand, compared with 27.2% currently.
Lithium carbonate producers are working towards
increasing their supply of lithium hydroxide in order to cater
for this anticipated demand.
US-based chemicals giant Albermarle Corp., which
completed its acquisition of lithium producer Rockwood Holdings
in January this year, is considering whether to build a new
plant to make lithium hydroxide.
US competitor FMC Corp. is also mulling the idea,
with a decision expected within a year. Both expect that their
projects will be built in Asia or in the US.
"Lithium hydroxide’s importance is
going to be bigger in the future for its use as active cathode
material in batteries for high power applications," Signumbox
said. "That means that the lithium hydroxide market is going to
be much more important than lithium carbonate, since its
capacity is much more limited."
According to Argentina-based lithium producer
Orocobre Ltd’s investor presentation in June 2015,
"New applications for lithium batteries have not yet been
quantified for their effect on lithium demand, but some
research groups are suggesting a potential doubling of market
size by 2020."
Yet the overreliance of battery markets on a
handful of niche mineral producers around the world could see
them caught short in terms of the specific materials they
require to make their products.
For Lux Research’s Xie, the biggest
concern is the availability of lithium hydroxide as opposed to
carbonate. As for the purity question, "it will correlate with
price and be less of an issue."
*Conversion made in June 2015