Lithium Carbonate and Performance Elements for Electronics and Electric Car Batteries

Extracting minerals from oil-field waters to produce eco-friendly products is a very appealing concept, especially in todays march to meet the highest of environmental sustainability objectives. Devonian formation waters associated with producing oil and gas wells in parts of Alberta contain up to 140 mg/L lithium, a significant concentration, considering the average values of lithium in Alberta formation waters are 10 mg/L, based on approximately 1,500 analyses. The high-lithium brines also contain appreciable concentrations of potassium (up to 8000 mg/L), boron (up to 270 mg/L) and bromine (up to 410 mg/L). Ironstone's southern Clear Hills permits have also tested relatively high concentrations of lithium and related performance elements (LPE). [Eccles and Berhane, ERCB/AGS Open File Report, Oct. 2011]

Ironstone has commenced a multi-facetted development program to determine the engineering and economic viability of pre-concentrating the relatively shallow Devonian-bearing LPE brine to meet the objectives of building and operating a commercial multi-commodity extraction plant. The company is seeking to develop key brine-sourced lithium pre-concentration technology that would fulfill its commercialization objectives. Discussions with strategic companies that possess lithium carbonate refining technologies are underway.

Today, lithium that is typically recovered from South American brine deposits requires above-ground “refining” in evaporation or salar ponds, taking up to 18 months from extraction to a commercial product. The key to commercializing Alberta's lithium-bearing brines, where use of evaporation ponds is untenable, is to source or develop innovative technology to rapidly pre-concentrate the valuable commodities at which time they can be economically extracted using commercially available extractive technology.

A Plethora of Lithium Applications

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Lithium is the lightest solid metal that is highly reactive, malleable, and a good conductor of heat and electricity. These properties contribute to its widely varying application, including:

  • in the medical industry as a mood-stabilizer, bipolar disorder treatment, and preventing Alzheimer’s disease
  • batteries and telecommunications
  • as chemical desiccants, or for polymerization and organic synthesis
  • in general engineering for high-temperature lubricants and soaps, for fluxes for welding and soldering, and for CO2 scale prevention
  • in high strength-to-weight alloys for high-performance automotive and aircraft parts
  • in the optics industry for focal lenses, and infrared and ultraviolet applications
  • as propellants in rocket engines
  • for fusion material in nuclear power plants and weapons
  • as a substitute for environmentally-unfriendly elements such as fluorine

The unique properties of lithium ideally position it for portable energy storage applications that will be a key enabler of the electric car revolution and replace gasoline as the primary source of transportation fuel.

Automobile manufacturers are now mass-producing electrical vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries represent a viable lightweight, durable power source for eco-friendly vehicles. Subsequent demand has caused lithium commodity prices to surge and introduced speculation about whether sufficient volumes of lithium are available to sustain global Li- ion battery production.

The Transportation Market to Drive Lithium Demand

According to Goldman Sachs, the greatest opportunity for lithium-based batteries lies ahead in the form of transportation applications. In 2014 alone, more than 70 million cars were sold globally, providing an enormous available market for lithium-based batteries. A typical cell phone uses 5-7 grams of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) in its battery. A Tesla Model S with a 70kWh battery uses 63 kilograms – an equivalent content of more than 10,000 cell phones.

Lithium could be a key enabler of the electric car revolution and replace gasoline as the primary source of transportation fuel. Thanks to technology breakthroughs, favorable policy, and supportive public opinion, electric vehicles (EVs) appear poised for a sustained period of superior growth with Goldman Sachs estimating 22% EV penetration in 2025 from under 3% today. In 2014 alone, more than 70 million cars were sold globally, providing an enormous available market for lithium-based batteries. The core material that enables lithium-ion batteries to function is lithium.

According to Goldman Sachs:

  • EV adoption represents a huge and generally untapped market for lithium suppliers.
  • The greatest opportunity for lithium and lithium-ion batteries is yet to come in the form of multiple future transportation applications.
  • EV development could pave the way for further developments and demand, including electric trucks, trains and aeroplanes.
  • If EVs achieve a further 1% penetration of the global car market, it would increase lithium demand by 70,000 metric tonnes of LCE/year, or approximately half of current global demand for lithium.
  • Lithium demand for all EV applications could grow more than 11 times by 2025.
  • $150/kWh is the tipping point for broad commercialization. Goldman Sachs believe this is feasible by 2020. 

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