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Rechargeable batteries – a commentary from the miners providing the material

Battery makers want more from specialty mineral miners by Aron Cleugh, Reiner Haus and Jane Spooner, M-Plan International Special to The Northern Miner. This serves to make you more knowledgeable on Rare Earths and what these can provide for rechargeable batteries. Please remember that batteries entail also high-tech textiles

Metals and minerals for rechargeable batteries are in the spotlight as projections of rapidly increasing demand indicate future supply shortages. Over the next 10 years, demand for lithium and cobalt is expected to more than double, and graphite demand is expected to triple. Vanadium, manganese, nickel and rare earth elements are also needed in rechargeable batteries.

Against this background of anticipated demand growth, technology is changing at a furious pace in the battery sector as manufacturers are challenged to improve performance. For example, electric-vehicle battery manufacturers face intense pressure to boost charge capacity, shorten recharging time, lighten weight, improve cold weather performance and safety, and cut costs.

To realise these performance advancements, manufacturers are demanding improved quality and processing efficiency from their lithium, cobalt and graphite feedstock suppliers.

These demands take on a new dimension when considering specialty mineral deposits, which differ from base and precious metal deposits in that their economic viability is affected by factors such mineralogy, chemical purity and the nature of any impurities, and not just the resource tonnage and grade.

For instance, the crystal structure of mined graphite appears in the final battery. This is not the case for metals such as cobalt, which are leached from their native minerals and take on new crystal structures in a battery. In the case of both graphite and lithium, the specifics of the deposit will determine a miner’s ability to economically produce battery-grade materials.

Because the physical, chemical and mineralogical aspects of the deposit are so critical to meet the quality demands of the market, we recommend investigative metallurgical tests early in any exploration program. Early investigation of mineralogy and chemical composition will also help identify potential markets — information that can then be integrated into a larger exploration program to provide better focus and potentially save money.

When calculating an initial resource estimate, this early test work may also support a case that the deposit is potentially economic at a suitable product price.

Market studies are an important aspect of specialty mineral projects because these markets are opaque, trade occurs directly between seller and buyer, and transaction prices are rarely published. Furthermore, product specifications are often proprietary, adding another layer of market opacity.

Lithium, cobalt & graphite

Lithium resources occur as brines in salars (salt lakes) and in hard rock as the minerals spodumene, petalite, lepidolite and mica, and to a lesser extent, in lithium-bearing clays. Lithium brines are concentrated using solar evaporation and processed to recover the principal battery chemicals lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide. Hard-rock lithium minerals must be physically beneficiated to produce a mineral concentrate that is processed by calcination and acid leaching, after which the leach solutions are treated to recover lithium carbonate or hydroxide.

Lithium hydroxide is gaining use in batteries which have a higher nickel content, since the carbonate may cause passivation of the nickel during manufacturing of the cathode alloy. Several hydrometallurgical processes are under development that will produce lithium hydroxide directly without going through the carbonate stage. These processes promise to lower energy and reagent consumption and achieve even higher purity, considering that impurities often must be in the parts-per-million range.

However, these innovations can’t be implemented immediately, as they first need to be scaled up and prove their commercial viability. This commercialization phase can take several years, so proven technology will likely remain the first choice for participants looking to gain market share and capitalize on any short-term supply problems.

Cobalt resources are widespread but the metal is mostly recovered as a by-product of nickel or copper mining, with just one primary source.

There is a complex relationship between battery chemistry and performance: cobalt hydroxide is used in nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal hydride batteries for portable electronics and electric vehicles; cobalt oxide is used in lithium-cobalt oxide batteries for consumer electronics; and cobalt sulphate is mainly used in lithium-nickel-cobalt-alumina and nickel-manganese-cobalt batteries for electric vehicles and power tools.

As for lithium battery chemicals, battery-grade cobalt sulphate specifications may require certain impurities in the parts-per-million range, particularly iron, copper, lead and cadmium.

Graphite is naturally abundant but has economic interest when it occurs as lenses, layers or veins of microcrystalline masses (termed amorphous) or discrete crystalline flakes between 75 and 850 microns in size, or in more lumpy particles.

For battery applications, both synthetic and natural graphite may be used, but synthetic graphite is derived from hydrocarbons using energy intensive processes, and so natural deposits of graphite usually offer cost advantages.

Natural graphite is liberated and concentrated using multiple stages of conventional flotation to produce a high-purity concentrate that is processed into a spherical product, and further refined to produce battery-grade material.

Recent developments in graphite processing have focused on micronizing, spherodizing and purification. The spherodization process folds and wraps each graphite flake into a sphere, also known as a “potato.” This allows the graphite to be efficiently packed within the anode while, at the same time, allowing rapid passage of lithium ions.

The challenge today in beneficiation is to achieve purity through liberation of the graphite flakes while maintaining the flake size and aspect ratio, such that the final sphere can be produced with sufficient size and with total final impurities less than 0.05%.

Seven juniors hunting for battery minerals

The boom in electric vehicle manufacturing has translated into a lively subsector of junior explorers scouring the world for new deposits of lithium, cobalt, graphite and other minerals suited for use in emerging technologies.Avalon Logo

Don Bubar-led Avalon Advanced Materials, a Candadian rare earths mining company, has been best known over the past decade for its Nechalacho rare earth element project near Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. But with the rare earths market cooling, Avalon has shifted gears and refocused on its Separation Rapids hard-rock lithium deposit 70 km north of Kenora in northwestern Ontario.

First discovered and drilled out by Avalon two decades ago, Separation Rapids’ measured and indicated resource stands at 8 million tonnes grading 1.29 % Li2O, 39  % total feldspar, 0.006% Ta2O5, 0.021 % Cs2O and 0.352 % Rb2O. Another 1.6 million tonnes at similar grades lie in the inferred category.

Avalon completed a preliminary economic assessment at Separation Rapids in September 2016 that looked at producing high-quality lithium hydroxide from Avalon’s concentrates of the lithium mineral petalite using an “innovative hydrometallurgical technique” that it developed in the late 1990s, and optimized in 2016.

Avalon recently infill-drilled 1500 metres in five holes, and is aiming to build a USD 25-million, demonstration scale processing plant at an old industrial site near Kenora, funded in part by potential customers for Avalon’s lithium products.

In June Avalon raised CAD 510000 by privately placing 3.4 million flow-through shares at 15¢ apiece, and secured CAD 500000 from the Ontario government under the Northern Innovation Programme of the government’s Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. to help with metallurgical processing studies and scale-up of the pilot plant. In March, Avalon also raised CAD 2.5 million in a preferred share financing.

Avalon's Lithium Hydroxide Product successfully tested as Lithium Ion Battery Cathode Material

Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. ("Avalon" or the "Company") is pleased to report on the results from laboratory testing of its lithium hydroxide product conducted recently by the National Research Council of Canada ("NRC"). The lithium hydroxide product was made from petalite concentrate using Avalon's proprietary hydrometallurgical process developed for the Separation Rapids Lithium Project, Kenora, Ontario, Canada.

The product sample, technically referred to as Lithium Hydroxide Monohydrate (LiOH.H2O), was evaluated by NRC as a potential feed material for lithium ion battery cathodes. Elemental analysis of Avalon's lithium hydroxide product confirmed that it was of high purity with very minor amounts of non-lithium metal impurities within the range reported by commercial suppliers of battery grade lithium hydroxide materials.

Avalon Lithium

A lithium and manganese-rich nickel manganese cobalt oxide (LMR-NMC) cathode material was synthesised using Avalon's lithium hydroxide product and demonstrated "excellent electrochemical performance" exhibiting a high capacity rate (209 mA/h/g), high initial coulombic efficiency (86%) and very little capacity fade (<1% after 60 cycles): all comparable to the performance of material synthesised from a reference lithium hydroxide product.

NRC reported that the Avalon lithium hydroxide product would be a suitable precursor for the synthesis of lithium and manganese-rich NMC-type cathode materials. Avalon has also identified opportunities to further improve the purity of its initial lithium hydroxide product and will be following up with further testwork in the near future. This work will be supported by funding received from Northern Innovation Program of the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation ("NOHFC") as disclosed in the Company's news release dated June 27, 2017. The Northern Innovation Program is designed to support the development and commercialization of new technologies that will contribute to future prosperity in Northern Ontario.

The Company's Preliminary Economic Assessment ("PEA") disclosed in the news release dated September 27, 2016, outlined a scenario for economic production of a high purity lithium hydroxide product from its concentrate of the lithium mineral petalite using its proprietary hydrometallurgical process. Avalon is now in the process of preparing an updated technical report to reflect the revised mineral resource estimate following the recent drilling program, updated product pricing and modifications to the process flowsheet.

Avalon is now planning to develop a Phase 1 demonstration plant in the Kenora area to not only confirm the efficiency of its proprietary petalite flotation and lithium hydroxide production processes but also to provide large volume trial samples for customers interested in its lithium hydroxide product and other lithium mineral by-products. Avalon is targeting an initial production capacity for the demonstration plant of between 650 and 1300 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per annum.

The technical information included in this news release has been reviewed and approved by the Company's Senior Vice President, Metallurgy and Technology Development, David Marsh, FAusIMM (CP), and Donald S. Bubar, P.Geo. both Qualified Persons under NI 43-101.

Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. is a Canadian mineral development company specializing in niche market metals and minerals with growing demand in new technology. The Company has three advanced stage projects, all 100%-owned, providing investors with exposure to lithium, tin and indium, as well as rare earth elements, tantalum, niobium, and zirconium. Avalon is currently focusing on its Separation Rapids Lithium Project, Kenora, ON and its East Kemptville Tin-Indium Project, Yarmouth, NS. Social responsibility and environmental stewardship are corporate cornerstones.