Lithium, the lightest of all metals, is used in a wide range of applications, air treatment, ceramics, glass, metallurgy, pharmaceuticals, and polymers. But it is the use of lithium in the production of cathode materials for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (LIB’s) that maked it a strategical raw material. Due to the application in the electrification of transport, LIB’s are particularly important in global efforts to lower CO2 emissions and to mitigate global warming.
Today LIB’s represent about 37% of the rechargeable battery world market, and this is an increasing value. Moreover, LIB’s consume 39% of the total lithium production, with the demand of lithium in the automotive industry estimated to reach $221 billion by 20241.
In this context, the mining company Rio Tinto just got a jackpot. Rio Tinto announced lately they may become the largest US producer of lithium, with no need of any new mining activity. For almost a century, the company has been producing borates, an operation during which piles of waste rock were generated. It is in this waste, also called tailings in the industry, that, while looking for gold, they have found high concentrations of lithium.
A pilot plant for the extraction of 10 t of lithium per year using a heat-and-leach process is under construction. If the extraction is successful, Rio Tinto plans a scale up to 5000 t of lithium annually with an investment of $5 million2-3.
To read more on this:
1. Rio Tinto studying ways to produce lithium from waste rock at California – https://whtc.com
2. Rio Tinto has "eureka moment" with a California lithium discovery – https://www.ft.com
3. Recovery and recycling of lithium: A review – Basudev Swain, Sep. Purif. Technol., 2017, 172, 388-403.