Chemetall extracts lithium carbonate, a powder, from brine, a salty solution from within the earth. | Photo courtesy Chemetall
- Chemetall supplies materials for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles
- $28.4 million in Recovery Act funding going toward geothermal plant
- Plant expected to produce 4 MW of electrical power, employ 25 full-time workers
Chemetall produces lithium carbonate to customers in a wide range of industries, including for batteries used in electric vehicles, and now the company will be able to make its product with electricity generated from the same place it finds lithium carbonate — within the Earth.
A $28.4 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Electric Drive Battery and Component Manufacturing grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will help fund a geothermal power plant to assist in making Chemetall's operations in Silver Peak, Nev., self-sufficient.
In the process, 50 construction workers will be needed, and the power plant will employ about 25 full-time workers. The company is currently doing an environmental assessment and hopes to complete the project by 2013.
"Provided that the geothermal resource is adequate, we will go off the Nevada Power grid and become self-sufficient," says Joe Dunn, general manager. To do that, Chemetall will need a geothermal power plant capable of producing nearly 4 MW of electrical power, roughly enough to serve 10,790 average American homes yearly, assuming no down time for the plant.
Hiring is already ongoing at Chemetall to support its operations in attempting to go off the grid and in increasing production.
"The additional employment is due to the increase in lithium carbonate production," Dunn says. "Jobs have been and will be created in manufacturing, administration, drilling and power plant operations."
Playing an important part in the supply chain
Lithium carbonate — a type of salt — is a mixture of lithium, carbon and oxygen. The compound has been used in industrial glass, ceramic glaze and is commonly used when manufacturing lithium-ion battery components. Chemetall finds the compound deep within the Clayton Valley substratum, the layer beneath the soil, by pumping brine — water heavily saturated with salts — to the surface.
Once brine reaches the surface, the product begins a journey lasting up to 24 months, allowing the lithium to concentrate by means of solar evaporation, Dunn says. "Once the lithium concentration reaches a level that is economically feasible, the brine is pumped to the carbonate plant for further processing," he says.
While in the plant, the lithium is precipitated out of the brine as a lithium carbonate solid, which is then dried, screened and packaged to meet customers' needs. Chemetall sells to a variety of customers, primarily in the ceramics and aluminum markets.
When Chemetall sells lithium carbonate that might someday end up in a battery for an electric vehicle, the materials potentially go through a process that involves multiple companies.
In lithium-ion batteries, the key components are the cathode (positive end), anode (negative end), electrolyte (substance that moves ions along in the system) and the separator (keeps positive and negative parts separate, preventing short circuits). The lithium carbonate produced by Chemetall eventually ends up in the cathode. To get it there, Chemetall's direct customers mix the lithium carbonate with other metal oxides (cobalt, manganese or nickel) and fire the mixture in a furnace to generate cathode powder, a black powder that they then ship to a battery cell manufacturer. The battery company mixes the powder into slurry and then coats the mixture onto aluminum foil, finishing the process of creating a cathode.
Once a cathode is constructed, it will still need to join the anode, electrolyte and separator to become a battery, which then could move on to auto industry customers and, eventually, into American driveways.