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Welcome arrow Articles arrow Miscellaneous arrow A Salt & Batteries
A Salt & Batteries PDF Print E-mail

Written by Jeff Heselwood

It is generally used in batteries for laptop computers, i-Pods and cell phones, but it is also used in a clean vehicle built in California.† We are referring to the alkali lithium, which is an essential element in lithium-ion batteries.† Lithium will become increasingly important to the automotive world in future years, as Chevrolet introduces its battery-powered Volt, Nissan the Leaf and Tesla, part-owned by Daimler AG and Toyota Motor Company, expands production of its battery-powered sports car.

Image It is a fact that seawater contains an estimated 230 billion tonnes of lithium, although generally at a low concentration of 0.1 to 0.2 ppm.† The metal is mostly recovered from salt flats of lakes in South America. More than eighty-one per cent of the world's lithium is found in just three South American countries, namely Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.† Relatively small amounts of lithium are produced by both the United States and China.

China and Russia have lithium ore resources, but find it is presently cheaper to import this material from Chile than to mine their own. Estimates put Chile's reserve base at 7.5m tonnes of lithium, and those of Argentina at approximately 6m tonnes

Discovered by Swedish chemist Johan August Arfvedson in 1817, lithium is the lightest of all metals, with a density only about half that of water. It does not occur freely in nature but it is found in small units in nearly all igneous rocks and in†many mineral springs.

Most lithium is recovered from brine, or water with a high concentration of lithium carbonate. Brines trapped in the Earth's crust are the major source material for lithium carbonate. These sources are less expensive to mine than from rock such as spodumene, petalite, and other lithium-bearing minerals.

In the United States, lithium is recovered from brine pools in Nevada, but according to the U.S. Geological Survey, Bolivia has almost half the world's known reserves of lithium.† China hopes to emerge as a significant producer of brine-sourced lithium carbonate, notably in Qinghai Province as well as in Tibet.† The U.S. does not disclose the amount of lithium produced annually, but it is not considered significant.† Russia and Australia are also producers of lithium, but well below Chile in terms of annual tonnage.

 

Atacama Desert, Chile

Image The largest salt flat in Chile is the Salar de Atacama, located about 55 km south of San Pedro de Atacama.† Surrounded by mountains it has no drainage outlets and is one of the driest places on earth.

The salt flat encompasses over 3000 square kilometres, making the second largest in the world; Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia covers about 10,500 square kilometres. The topography of the core portion of the Chilean salar is permanently free of water, whereas Salar de Uyuni is periodically covered with shallow water.† The Chilean salt flat contains around 27 per cent of global lithium reserves.

Argentina also has lithium reserves, the largest of which is the Salar del Hombre Muerto lithium mine.† The salt water in this location is rich in lithium and the mine concentrates the brine by pumping it into solar evaporation ponds.† This allows the lithium salt to then be recovered.

Lithium-ion batteries and their applications

Pioneer work with the lithium battery began in 1912 under G.N. Lewis but it was not until the early 1970s when the first non-rechargeable lithium batteries became commercially available. Lithium is the lightest of all metals, has the greatest electrochemical potential and provides the largest energy density for weight.
Attempts to develop rechargeable lithium batteries failed due to safety problems. Because of the inherent instability of lithium, especially during charging, research shifted to a non-metallic lithium battery using lithium ions. Although slightly lower in energy density than lithium metal, lithium-ion is safe, provided certain precautions are met when charging and discharging. It was in 1991 that the Sony Corporation commercialised the first lithium-ion battery.

The energy density of lithium-ion is typically twice that of the standard nickel-cadmium. There is potential for higher energy densities. The load characteristics are reasonably good and behave in a similar way to nickel-cadmium in terms of discharge.

BYD

Established in 1995, BYD is a Hong Kong-listed company with an extensive private enterprise background. The company is one of the world's leading producers of lithium-ion batteries, which have proved to be an effective and affordable alternative to traditional batteries. The BYD lithium-ion batteries include lithium-ion cell, lithium-ion battery pack, li-polymer battery, all of which are widely used in a variety of applications. BYD's customers include international cell phone giants Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Kyocera, Phillips, prominent domestic cell phone companies Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo, as well as cordless phone experts Vtech, Panasonic, and Sony.† BYD has developed from 20 employees in 1995 to a corporation with more than 150,000 employees and 10 industrial parks across China in 2009, including sites in Guangdong, Beijing, Shaanxi, Shanghai, and Changsha. Serial investor Warren Buffett owns just short of 10 per cent of the company, for which he paid US$230m.

LG Chem to supply lithium-ion packs for new Ford EV

Ford Motor Company has selected Compact Power, Inc. (CPI), a subsidiary of South Korea's LG Chem, to build lithium-ion battery packs for the Ford Focus Electric, which will go on sale in the U.S. in 2011.

The Focus Electric battery packs will leverage CPI and parent company LG Chem's deep expertise in advanced flat format lithium-ion cells and advanced liquid-cooled modules and battery management systems.

"CPI is an emerging leader in the lithium-ion battery field and we are pleased to have them as a strategic supplier as we prepare to bring the Ford Focus Electric to market," said Sherif Marakby, Ford director, Sustainable Mobility Products and Hybrid programs. "We are moving aggressively with our electrification strategy and our work to help make Michigan a centre of excellence for a range of electrified vehicles."

The lithium-ion cells for the packs will initially be sourced from Korea through LG Chem. LG Chem and CPI will be localising cell production at their new site in Holland, Michigan.

 

Tesla Roadster

The Tesla Roadster, which is currently on an awareness tour of Hong Kong and other Asian countries, is powered by 6,800 lithium-ion batteries. The battery pack of the Tesla electric vehicle is one of the largest and technically most advanced lithium-ion battery packs in the world. It is capable of delivering enough power to accelerate the Tesla from 0 to 100 km/h in about† four seconds. Meanwhile, the battery stores enough energy for the vehicle to travel more than 300 kilometres without recharging, something no production electric vehicle in history can claim.

Under the market pull of consumer electronics products, energy and power densities have increased while cost has dropped making lithium-ion the choice for an electric vehicle like the Tesla. In the past, to achieve such tremendous range for an electric vehicle it would need to carry more than a thousand kilograms of nickel metal hydride batteries. Physically large and heavy, such a car could never achieve the acceleration and handling performance that the Tesla Roadster has so far achieved.

 

Conclusion

The incessant demand for laptop computers, mobile telephones, cameras plug-in hybrid vehicles and pure electric vehicles (EV), means lithium is a rapidly growing market.† It appears there are currently sufficient global reserves of this rare metal, but until another major development occurs in EV research, it means prices of lithium will go ever higher.

 
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© 2018 Jeff Heselwood. All rights reserved.
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