A world-first processing technology developed in collaboration by ANSTO’s Minerals unit and Lithium Australia Limited to extract lithium from discarded mining waste, LieNa®, has reached an exciting new milestone in its progress towards commercialisation.
In a recent ASX announcement, Western Australian mining company Mineral Resources Limited will provide $4.5 million in funding to Lithium Australia for the development and operation of a pilot plant for the LieNa® technology. Upon finalisation of pilot plant operations and an engineering study, a joint venture vehicle will also be formed to own and commercialise the technology.
Since 2015, ANSTO’s Minerals unit and Lithium Australia have worked together to develop the LieNa® extraction process. This process enables the overwhelming majority – at around 95 per cent – of lithium to be extracted from the spodumene mineral concentrate. Spodumene is a ‘hard rock’ lithium-bearing mineral.
The LieNa® process bypasses the extreme temperatures of over 1,000°C and high energy costs associated with conventional spodumene processing. Typically, conventional processing only recovers around 50 – 70 per cent of the lithium from the original ore. Such low recoveries occur because fine and low-grade spodumene are not compatible with the conventional processing, and are therefore rejected during the initial mineral processing.
Instead, LieNa® applies a hydrometallurgical process whereby such fine and/or low grade spodumene is fed into an autoclave (likened to a pressure cooker), where it reacts with caustic soda to form a synthetic lithium sodalite, allowing the lithium to be simply and easily separated. The extracted lithium can then be purified and converted to chemical concentrates suitable for lithium-ion battery manufacture.
The end result leads to maximised output with significantly reduced energy inputs.
ANSTO Senior Process Chemist, Dr Chris Griffith said it’s rewarding to see this technology reach this crucial step on the path to commercialisation.
“LieNa® is another example of the Australian mining industry playing its part in helping Australia to transition to a low emissions future, while delivering economic benefits to the Australian economy,” Dr Griffith said.
“ANSTO looks forward to supporting both Lithium Australia and Mineral Resources with our hydrometallurgical research expertise to further develop the LieNa® technology and host the pilot plant at our Lucas Heights facility in Sydney.”
The global pursuit to achieve environmental sustainability and a lower-emissions energy future has driven the increased demand for lithium. For over the past 30 years, lithium-ion batteries have been used largely in consumer electronics but are now shifting focus to being an essential component in green technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage systems.
By 2026, the global market for lithium-ion batteries is projected to be worth $242 billion. For green technology producers, this presents time-critical challenges to secure a steady supply of lithium materials and avoid supply shortages.
Australia remains the world’s largest producer of lithium and supplies over half of the world’s lithium in the form of spodumene. With almost 60 per cent of today’s global lithium supply being mined for battery-related uses, it’s expected this figure could reach 95 per cent by 2030.
Dr Griffith said this anticipated shift in demand for batteries will see innovative technologies like LieNa®, deliver significant and invaluable capability for industry in moving along the battery value chain.
“LieNa® is an excellent example of innovative technology that allows us to conduct more value-adding, downstream processing here nationally, leading Australia to realise the full value of our critical minerals endowments,” Dr Griffith said.
For over the past 40 years, ANSTO’s Minerals unit at Lucas Heights, comprised of a dedicated team of engineers, metallurgists, chemists, and scientists, has provided practical solutions and innovative technology to the Australian minerals and minerals processing industries, with a focus on critical minerals and rare earths.
ANSTO is also an active partner in the Australian National Critical Minerals Research and Development Hub which brings together the critical minerals expertise of ANSTO, Geoscience Australia, and CSIRO. The R&D Hub will work with industry to address technical challenges and drive collaborative research across the critical minerals value chain, as needed to support clean energy and Australia’s net zero policy agenda.