A critical mineral hiding in the desert
Extracting lithium from mining waste
Last updated: 4 February 2022
We were looking for gold, but what we found was more surprising: a way to get a critical mineral for the future from waste rock.
“A few years ago, we started looking into what metals we could extract from our waste,” said Alex, a Senior Engineer at our Boron operations in California, US.
“We actually found something - lithium – and the potential to produce a lot of it.”
Lithium is an essential ingredient in many low-carbon technologies including the electrification of transport, large-scale batteries, and energy storage. And as demand grows for these battery-fuelled goods, the world will need more of it.
The team developed a process to convert the waste material to produce battery-grade lithium carbonate (purity +99.5%) – without the need for additional mining. And in early 2021 we produced our first batch of battery-grade lithium carbonate.
Since then, we’ve been working to refine product quality and design a commercial-scale production facility.
“We’re working with the Critical Minerals Institute to produce a battery for testing, while also testing and modifying our plant to help improve product quality,” Alex said.
“Recent tests show a 30% improvement in battery performance over the first round of testing.”
A large-scale plant has the potential to produce the first battery-grade lithium in California. In addition to producing lithium, the current process also produces pozzolan, a by-product that can be used in the cement industry, giving us the potential to create a zero solid waste process. We’re also looking at how we can expand the plant so we can refine additional waste from Boron’s legacy waste dumps, and potentially even extract lithium from the open pit.
Over the past few years, our scientists and engineers have been hard at work looking for ways to reduce waste from our mines and extract valuable materials from waste rock or by-products. And while we need to do more to eliminate waste completely, we are making progress: we’re extracting scandium from titanium dioxide production, anhydrite and Alextra from our aluminium operations, and tellurium from our Kennecott copper operations.
By using waste to create something the world needs, we can play an important part in the growing renewable energy market and contribute to a more sustainable future.