Smartphones, electronic cars, and regenerative energies are a few of the hot topics of today. What they all have in common is battery technology requiring a formerly neglected material: lithium. The ‘new gold’ has been hailed as the solution to many problems but already has to face the accusation of being more burden than relief to a struggling climate and environment. Efficiency in the extraction process thus becomes pivotal and separation and filtration processes are suddenly essential to questions of sustainability.
Hardly anything defines our current age as much as the ubiquitous realisation that most of our resources are finite – and that the countdown has already begun. Fossil fuels take their toll on an already tarnished climate. and in search for other things we can feed to the always hungry engines that keep our economy afloat and our industries striving, electricity has been presented as the ultimate solution.
As a consequence, battery technology went through the roof and the global demand shifted. Lithium is suddenly one of the most sought after materials and the frenzy with which the search for it develops is almost reminiscent of a new gold rush.
However, the mining of the raw material is controversial due to its environmental impact. If produced from brine operations like in the so-called lithium triangle of Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, the purification calls for a great amount of water in a naturally dry region.
If produced from rock mining operations like in Australia, the extraction requires traditional methods of drilling and processing with the well-accounted effects on local and regional ecosystems. Nevertheless, the demand for lithium continues, with increasing costs. Not only because of smartphones, laptops and electric cars, but also because of the pressing matter of storing regenerative energies.
Thus, if the mining most likely will not stop, a sense of responsibility and environmental awareness turns efficiency into the essential component for sustainability. The more efficient the mining process, the lesser the unnecessary toll on climate and nature. Consequently, filtration technology which is required in both cases, brine as well as hard rock mining, will become the key component. “Bokela has a long history of developing and constructing filtration systems and complex technologies for various industries, including mining.
“It is our belief that an improved separation process is essential to a cost effective lithium winning”, stated Ulrich Derenthal, Director Sales & Sales Support, of the German filtration technology company Bokela. “The potential is immense. In the past, process-related losses were considered acceptable, as prices were lower.”
Now, however, to answer to the constantly rising demand, mining companies are looking to increasing the quarrying. “An elaborate, costly, and complicated process, due to regulations. Making the existing process more efficient also calls for an investment, but promises success more swiftly and sustainably,” Derenthal argued.
The industrial extraction of lithium is still at a fledgling stage. Operations on a larger commercial scale have been a development of the past few years and consequently, considerations of how the process can be completed more efficiently and with a lesser impact on the environment are comparatively new, too. Solid-liquid-separation is always at the core of the process – twice, in fact.
The first separation process happens during the extraction of the raw material. The second separation is conducted at the factories producing battery technology which requires further processing before the lithium is pure enough to serve in batteries. Since the material at this stage is already very fine, this purification process is much more sophisticated than the separation featuring the raw material. However, both steps bear potential for improvement.