Electric cars are only as sustainable as the lithium in their batteries
Fortunately, there are ways to extract metals while consuming less
More and more of the cars we drive are powered by electricity. To make all those heavy duty batteries, growing amounts of lithium and other critical metals are necessary - materials that currently remain irreplaceable. The same goes for the smaller batteries that power the millions of electronic devices that are so indispensable to our modern lives.
On both ends of the product lifecycle, from sourcing to disposal (the procurement and treatment of lithium), this is an increasingly important issue, as there is already concern that the mining process offsets the environmental advantages of switching to electric vehicles. The good news is, there are more and more solutions available today to help the mining industry improve the sustainability of its practices - and, in many cases, these solutions boil down to improving the chemistry.
Greener and safer chemistry
Generally speaking, the mining industry is under increasing pressure to improve its environmental profile – probably even more so than other sectors, due to its image as a somewhat outdated and dirty activity. Yet, on top of lithium, metals of all sorts (nickel, cobalt, palladium, manganese, copper, aluminum…) are more crucial than ever in our economies, to power the electrification of mobility and digitization, but also for the production of fundamental materials such as stainless steel.
Whether these metals are extracted from rocks the traditional way, purified from groundwater, or recycled from industrial scrap, various trends and evolutions are currently at play towards more sustainable practices by enabling reductions in resource consumption (water and energy) and increases in efficiency (extracting more without consuming additional resources).
One of the ways the mining industry can improve its sustainability profile is by making changes to the purification process: both in the chemicals employed, and by applying digital technologies to increase efficiency. “Mining companies are focusing more on their carbon footprint, and there have been major developments in base metal extraction in developing countries,” says Owen Tinkler, Business Development Director. “The public perception of the industry remains quite negative, but there are positive developments in terms of traceability and sustainability, and eventually there will be clean-sourced metals on the market like green aluminum.”
The industry is moving towards cleaner processes that generate less waste while using less energy, such as switching to solutions that spare resources while enabling extraction from ores that were unusable before (hence maximizing the use of reserves and ultimately producing more with less). There are many paths to explore and a wide range of solutions to enable them. “And we’re helping with all those challenges,” says Genevieve Castillo, Global Marketing Manager, Mineral Processing. “Mining is a very conventional industry, but it’s always evolving, and Solvay is busy coming up with different ways to make chemistries greener and safer.”
Solvents, reagents, additives and digital tools
The Group has been a partner of the mining industry for more than 100 years, and its products can be used for any type of metal recovery and mining. In flotation for example, where minerals are separated in a liquid froth, collector chemicals with superior selectivity have been formulated to improve the separation process while reducing energy consumption, and digital tools developed to monitor and optimize the entire process.
Other formulations serve to better remove heavy metals from the phosphate ores from which fertilizer and animal feed are produced, replacing previously used bad actors and improving efficiency by enabling the use of more and more complex ores while complying with increasingly stringent regulatory limits. And sometimes, it’s not a matter of developing a new molecule but coming up with a new use for an existing one to reap benefits in an entirely new sector. “This solution is a new application of a well-known technology, adapted for use in the phosphoric acid production process,” explains Ryan Zheng, Global Marketing Manager, Alumina & Industrial Minerals.
The examples are endless. In copper production, for which global demand keeps growing, solvent extraction can advantageously replace less sustainable traditional methods, while being complemented by SolvExtract™, a digital solution that maximizes production and optimizes mining chemical use. And in lithium production from underground salars in South America, vast amounts of water can be saved thanks to extractants as they replace the evaporation process.
In some cases, chemical solutions consist of incorporating additives into the process to make it more efficient and safer. Leaching aids prevent the formation of crud in solvent extraction, thus reducing solid waste generation and energy consumption. Similarly, in the alumina industry, scale inhibitors limit the need to stop production every few weeks for an acid cleaning, an operation that’s unsafe and generates toxic waste. “Scale inhibitors also improve heat transfer, therefore reducing energy consumption,” adds Ryan. “Thanks to fewer interruptions, aluminum plants can increase their throughput, and it’s a green chemistry, which is beneficial to both workers and the environment.”
Our core expertise is metal separation, which you can apply anywhere metals are combined with something else, when you need to select one particular element and reject all the others.
Laurent Cohen, Global Director, Strategic Development & Alliances.
Urban mining and perfect circularity
In emerging sectors such as “urban mining”, the retrieving of metals through recycling instead of extraction, chemical solutions for improved sustainability have a lot to contribute as well. The key focus for Solvay here is the recycling of electric vehicle batteries, because of the large volumes of metals they contain – a segment set to explode in years to come, as these batteries have a 10-to-15-year lifespan.
“Our core expertise is metal separation, which you can apply anywhere metals are combined with something else, when you need to select one particular element and reject all the others,” sums up Laurent Cohen, Global Director of Strategic Development and Alliances. “What’s particularly advantageous from an environmental point of view is that the metals used in the cathodes of EV batteries have already been extracted, purified and imported, so the benefit in terms of carbon footprint is considerable.”
Applying the same solvent extraction techniques used to retrieve metals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt from ores to “urban” metal recycling allows these metals to be reused in the same industry, with equal grade and quality; in other words, it enables perfect circularity. “We’re at the dawn of a new industry here,” says Owen. “And as scarce metals such as nickel and cobalt are irreplaceable, and with very uneven resources around the world, there is a geostrategic dimension to enabling complete circularity.”
That being said, whatever the sector, whatever the solution, introducing a new technology is usually a lengthy process. “The mining industry is quite conservative, so it always takes a few years for a new technology to take off,” adds Owen. “There is a lot of effort required, but we’re a part of this.”