Argonne partners with SQM to research lithium life cycle

A collaboration between the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, US and Chilean mining company SQM aims to yield critical insights into the lithium production process and how it relates to environmental sustainability.
Argonne partners with SQM to research lithium life cycle Argonne partners with SQM to research lithium life cycle Argonne partners with SQM to research lithium life cycle Argonne partners with SQM to research lithium life cycle Argonne partners with SQM to research lithium life cycle

Evaporation ponds at SQM’s lithium mining site in the Salar de Atacama, in Chile. (Image by SQM.)

The collaboration will study SQM's process for producing lithium with an eye towards better understanding sustainability challenges associated with lithium products.

Chile has long been a leading producer of lithium, which is increasingly seen as a critical ingredient for more environmentally friendly products, particularly in the area of transportation as it has become an essential element for the rechargeable battery market. The US Geological Survey estimates that batteries comprise 65% of the end-use market for lithium, and both SQM and Argonne have a strong mutual interest in evaluating the environmental effects of its production.

In October 2020, SQM committed to cutting its use of both fresh water and lithium-rich brine from the Salar de Atacama, a large salt flat in northern Chile, in a push to reduce the overall impact of its operations.

Veronica Gautier, head of innovation at SQM, said: "According to our sustainability plan, we want to look more closely at carbon emissions, water consumption and energy consumption in our lithium products, and see how it affects the rest of the value chain. This information will help us achieve our goal of being carbon neutral by 2030."

The formal analysis began last year and is using Argonne's open-source modelling tool, GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Technologies), with detailed data and technical insight coming from SQM. The results of the study are expected to be published later in 2021.

Jarod Kelly, life cycle analyst in Argonne's Energy Systems division, which is overseeing the project, said that the partnership will provide for a much better understanding of the environmental impacts of battery production, because the analysis will be rooted in more complete data than is often available.

He added: "It's very exciting for us, because we can be assured that the kind of data we're using is appropriate and relevant, and is really at the cutting edge. Working directly with an industrial partner like this is incredibly valuable."

According to Michael Wang, director of Argonne's Systems Assessment Center and a member of the project team, the analysis will also help address an overarching question in the global trend toward the electrification of transportation with battery electric vehicles.

He explained: "Often electrification is for the purpose of pursuing environmental sustainability. But we need to know more about lithium battery production before we can say we are truly on a sustainable path, or if we are just simply solving one problem but creating another one."

Gautier added that SQM would be making the study results publicly available. She said: "It is important for us to have full and complete transparency about how our process works, and we're excited to leverage Argonne's experience and expertise. Sharing this information will have great educational value."

In 2020, Argonne National Laboratory teamed up with specialty chemicals company Albemarle Corp to investigate a process to streamline production of lithium hydroxide from brine sources.