Low-Temperature Lithium Production Method Eliminates Hazards, Reduces Energy Cost

  • Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2024, 10:45 am

Y-12’s innovative and safer low temperature method for yielding lithium has the potential to change current methodologies.
Y‑12’s innovative and safer low temperature method for yielding lithium has the potential to change current methodologies.

Lithium (Li) has been a valued commodity to the battery manufacturing industry since the 1970s, but the Y‑12 National Security Complex (Y‑12) has valued lithium for the nuclear deterrence mission for decades longer. Unfortunately, the standard process to make lithium metal is energy demanding, environmentally harmful, and dangerous for personnel.

One Y‑12 inventor is trying to change that. John F., a senior chemistry specialist in Y‑12 Development, created and patented a safer low-temperature and chlorine‑free approach to lithium metal production that yields higher purity, efficiency, safety, and performance. John F. also serves as the Principal Investigator on a high‑temperature cell project at Y‑12.

Conventional lithium metal production methodologies require lithium ore to be processed into lithium chloride (LiCl). This extensive and energy-intensive process requires electrolysis at extremely high temperatures (over 800 degrees Fahrenheit) to extract lithium from a molten salt, resulting in high energy demand and the release of harmful toxins such as chlorine which harm the environment. Applying his experience with battery science, extractive metallurgy, and knowledge of nuclear fuel solvent extraction, Freiderich built a lithium metal production process that is much safer and environmentally friendly.

The new method is conducted at near room temperature with a byproduct of oxygen. This method can yield lithium with purity above 95% by weight, resulting in improved efficiency, performance, safety, sustainability, and 92% less energy demand compared to high‑temperature cell methods, with the possibility to go directly from ore or raw lithium to metal. This new process could drastically reduce the environmental impact by removing caustic leaching steps with their accompanying energy requirements and molten salt bath.

“This technology has the possibility to eliminate the industrial process of roasting lithium-contained ores, like spodumene, which is a 900 °C process to produce lithium materials,” reveals John F. “While not fully explored yet, this technology also could potentially reduce the overall number of steps required by Y‑12 and the lithium industry to process Li materials.”

“The Plant Directed Research, Development, and Demonstration (PDRD) program has the unique capability to explore high‑risk and novel methods to modernize and improve our production plants,” states Mike E., Y‑12 PDRD Program Manager. “The low‑temperature, chlorine‑free lithium production method perfectly fits that mission space and has the potential to transform Y‑12’s current lithium manufacturing process.”

Y‑12 is partnering with Novae Metals through FedTech’s Emerging Tech Studio to commercialize the technology. With the commendation of the need to create a U.S.‑based supply chain for lithium and the exponential demand growth for the commodity by 2030, this new method is a potential game changer for Y‑12, the future of lithium battery production, and global energy.

“If successful, this technology can increase the purity of lithium metal with a smaller footprint, enhance worker safety, and minimize impact to the environment,” said Mike E. “Technologies such as this are what the originators of PDRD had in mind when first legislating this funding source to improve our production facilities, and it is exciting to enable the possibilities this process could bring.”