The company developed and designed LieNA® - a caustic conversion process that recovers lithium from fine and/or low-quality spodumene - with the assistance of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
Bench-scale tests have demonstrated its ability to tolerate impurities and process fine feed material that cannot be handled by conventional converters that rely on roasting and acid leach.
"Greater cost control"
Lithium Australia managing director Adrian Griffin said: "Adoption of LieNA® for mainstream lithium production potentially offers the owners of that technology greater control of costs in the lithium chemical supply chain.
“Through the ability to recover additional lithium from waste streams, the mining cost is spread over significantly higher production tonnages.”
At present, recovery of spodumene to commercial concentrates in a form suitable for conventional converters may result in 30-50% (or more) of mined lithium being discharged into tailings dams.
Production of lithium chemicals for the battery industry from waste material could significantly reduce mining costs, as well as the environmental footprint of operations.
“Highly desirable in light of ESG”
Griffin said: “The ability of LieNA® to produce lithium phosphate from spodumene as direct feed for the fastest growing sector of the LIB lithium-ferro-phosphate (LFP) market, without the need for further chemical conversion, makes it highly desirable in light of ESG considerations including a smaller mining footprint, greater sustainability, superior safety and an absence of conflict metals.
“There are good reasons why the Tesla Model 3 is going for LFP batteries in China and LieNA® is aimed at servicing the fast-growing LFP battery market.”
LieNA has strong parallels with the processing of bauxite to produce alumina, involving caustic conversion at an elevated temperature
Path to commercialisation
Commercialisation of the technology relies on the transition from bench-scale to first-generation pilot plant, incrementally increasing operating scale to the end goal of a production facility.
While Lithium Australia has received federal co-funding through a Co-operative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) grant for the construction and operation of a pilot plant, it will seek formal expressions of interest from spodumene concentrate producers and lithium chemical manufacturers to participate in the pilot-plant program in return for equity in the process.
Safer battery option
LieNA can produce lithium phosphate direct from spodumene for use as feed in the production of LFP cathode powders, reducing the number of process steps converters require to produce LFP, the safest type of LIB.
The risk to safety of nickel-based LIBs (eg NCM) is thermal runaway, with expensive and space-consuming fire-mitigation measures required to ensure their compliance with stringent European, North American and now (tightened) Chinese standards.
LFP batteries are safe for use without such requirements and now power many electric vehicles in China (such as the Tesla Model 3), a choice driven by the inherent safety of the battery type.