Argonne partners with Chilean company SQM to better understand lithium life cycle

A groundbreaking collaboration with one of the world’s largest producers of lithium will yield critical insights into the lithium production process and how it relates to environmental sustainability.

As lithium is increasingly seen as a critical ingredient for more environmentally friendly products, particularly in the area of transportation, a new groundbreaking public-private collaboration will yield critical insights into the lithium production process and how it relates to long-term environmental sustainability.

SQM, a Chilean company that is one of the world’s biggest producers of lithium, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, a leading scientific research institution located just outside Chicago, Illinois, have announced a collaboration that will study SQM’s process for producing lithium – with an eye toward better understanding sustainability challenges associated with lithium products.

Chile has long been a leading producer of lithium, which has become an essential element for the rechargeable battery market, among other uses. With the U.S. Geological Survey estimating that batteries comprise 65 percent of the end-use market for lithium, both SQM and Argonne, a pioneer in battery research, have a strong mutual interest in evaluating the environmental effects of its production.

“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,” said Veronica Gautier, SQM’s head of innovation. “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 modeling tool, GREET (Greenhouse gases Regulated Emissions and Energy in Technologies), with detailed data and technical insight coming from SQM. The results of the study are expected to be published later this year.

Jarod Kelly, a lifecycle 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.

“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,” Kelly said. “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.

“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,” Wang said.

Gautier added that SQM, which produces lithium from the Salar de Atacama, a large salt flat in the northern part of the country next to the Andes Mountains, would be making the study results publicly available.

 

“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,” she said. “Sharing this information will have great educational value.”

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