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Lithium Shaping the Future

 by Sarah Maher,

Futuristic vehicles are popping up all around us. The odds are you see them on your morning commute, in the grocery store parking lot, or a trip to the gym. The sleek exteriors stand out, but the real difference is what’s under the hood. The heart of the electric car: the lithium-ion battery.

Lithium-ion batteries are all around us. They are used in smartphones, laptops, and even cars. For an object that is all around us, what do we really know about lithium-ion? What is lithium-ion? How is it made? What makes it better than standard fuel?

What is Lithium?

Lithium is an alkali metal. In fact, it’s a metal with some pretty amazing properties. Not only the lightest metal but the lightest element, lithium is highly reactive and corrodes quickly when exposed to air. Due to this instability, pure lithium does not occur in nature but has been purified by man and used in nuclear reactions, batteries, and even in trace amounts as medicines.

What is a Lithium-ion Battery?

Rechargeable Lithium batteries are called Lithium-ion batteries due to the lithium ions that move from negative to positive electrode when being used, and back when being charged. Lithium-ion batteries consist of a positive electrode, a negative electrode (most commonly graphite), and electrolytes (most commonly lithium oxide). Ionic lithium batteries can handle hundreds of charge cycles and contrary to popular belief do not have a memory (no need to let your phone die before recharging). The most beneficial qualities of lithium-ion is the lightweight high energy density nature that allows for thinner lighter longer lasting technology.

There are a few downsides to this wonder battery, however. They do not handle heat well and start to degrade as soon as they are made, and of course the potential to explode which made headlines in 2016. However, the positives outweigh the negatives but that is not to say that researchers aren’t looking for ways to improve.

How is Lithium Mined?

Mining companies mine for Lithium in two different ways: from underground reservoirs or mineral ore. The most common method due to economic sustainability is using underground reservoirs. Lithium is extracted from underground reservoirs that are high in dissolved salts. The water is brought to the surface where it will sit until it is evaporated enough to be sent to a recovery plant where other unwanted minerals are removed. The lithium chloride is then treated with sodium carbonate thereby creating lithium carbonate: a white powder with the potential of becoming metal, salts, or chemicals.

When extracting Lithium from mineral ore the ore must first be crushed and heated to displace the lithium before being cooled and crushed into a fine powder, mixed with sulphuric acid, and heated again. The mixture is then filtered and mixed with soda ash to create crystallized lithium carbonate which is heated and filtered once more before being dried.   

Making News Headlines

In late July 2017, Britain announced a ban on petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 urging the country to rely on electric cars as a method of reducing air pollution. This is great news for lithium-ion battery manufacturers as we’ve seen companies such as Volvo already pledging to manufacture only hybrid or electric cars from 2019 on.

Tesla, the force of reckoning in the electric car industry, announced their plans to make an “affordable Model 3” by 2018 and broke ground on their 1.9 million square foot Gigafactory.  

Last year the world reached 2 million electric vehicle mark and this number is expected to grow dramatically. In addition, many electric vehicle companies are now setting their sights on larger vehicles such as semi trucks, mining vehicles, and buses. Just this month the electric bus company, Proterra, set a world record for longest distance driven.

Looking Towards the Future

With all of the recent plans to replace the combustion engine with battery power, one thing is for certain. Lithium is the future and here at GK, we are working to make that future work more automated.

General Kinematics has the experience to improve your processing power. The new vibratory Indirect Cooler can improve the cooling process of any of your hygroscopic products. Making way for a more efficient process and expanding the horizon for lithium mining- Call GK today to learn more!