AZO Materials: Using mechanochemistry to revolutionize lithium extraction

When people think of chemistry, the image that typically comes to mind is a variety of colored liquids in beakers, flasks, and test tubes in a lab. But in actual practice, chemistry can involve materials in all states: liquids, gases, and even solids.

Scientists at the Critical Materials Innovation (CMI) Hub, led by the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames National Laboratory, are using a subdiscipline of chemistry called mechanochemistry that literally shakes up the conventional understanding of chemical reactions, using mechanical forces that agitate, tumble, and smash solids to initiate chemical reactions. Their new process, mechanochemical extraction of lithium at low temperatures, or MELLT, is a creative solution to increase and diversify the supply of lithium in the United States.

Lithium is a high-demand element with an associated supply chain risk. It is needed for high-performance rechargeable batteries found in technologies such as cell phones, medical devices, and electric vehicles, to name a few. As electric vehicles become more popular, the demand for lithium increases. The lithium element (Li) needed to make these batteries comes from two sources: brines and hard-rock minerals. Lithium brines are deposits of salty groundwater that have accumulated dissolved lithium. The main hard-rock mineral that contains lithium is called spodumene. Both sources require different extraction methods.

Ihor Hlova, a CMI and Ames Lab scientist and the project group leader, explained that extracting lithium from brines is a cost-effective process that is based on solar evaporation. Basically, shallow wells filled with the brine are continuously exposed to open air to let the water evaporate. It is the primary source for both imported and domestic lithium in the United States.

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