Stephen Strubel, the Managing Director of industry-leading advanced materials technology company ChemX Materials Ltd, details how their HiPurA® technology can drive global decarbonisation efforts by producing high-purity alumina to power the battery supply chain.
ChemX Materials Ltd is leading the development of advanced materials technology for the decarbonisation and energy transition markets. The company has been built on a foundation of commitment to the sustainable development of technology materials while also centring on environmental protection and sustainable practices in its activities. This is underpinned by their commitment to creating long-term shareholder value.
ChemX emphasises the importance of relationships with both end users and researchers to create products with the optimum purity and morphological specifications necessary for new and existing technologies. The fast pace of development necessitates a collaborative approach to meet expectations and demand.
ChemX is a materials technology company focusing on the mining and the chemistry associated with developing the critical materials needed for the energy transition and decarbonisation markets. There is currently a lot of investment in these markets to further innovation and develop the technologies, supply chains, and infrastructure required to achieve net zero by 2050. We are vertically integrated with full responsibility for various stages of our production process, from exploration to mining and processing. Our core strategy is to examine what the market needs and then determine how we can develop a project to meet that need.
ChemX Materials has three central projects, all of which are in line with the company’s decarbonisation and electrification thematic. This includes its flagship technology, HiPurA®, through which the company is working to produce high-purity alumina (HPA) and lithium battery aluminium salts.
HiPurA® high-purity alumina technology
The HiPurA® technology is a unique, scalable, and modular process technology that ChemX has created for the production of high-purity alumina and aluminium salts production facilities to be situated in close proximity to the buyers, thereby massively shortening the length of the logistics chain, reducing the carbon footprint of production and the possibility of supply disruptions.
The carbon footprint of this process is further reduced by not using aluminium metal as a feedstock, thus consuming far less energy than conventional processes.
Other benefits of the HiPurA® technology include:
- It is not tied to any mining operation, avoiding the timeframe and cost of establishing a mining operation;
- There is excellent potential to produce >99.999% (5N), or higher purity alumina; and
- The technology provides the opportunity to develop high-purity alumina with different properties and characteristics; In addition, the process can produce battery cathode precursor-grade aluminium salts and boehmite.
High-purity alumina has two main uses. The most publicised use currently is as a coating on the separator – known as a ceramic separator – in lithium batteries, driving growth in demand for the material. A key benefit of having an HPA-coated separator is the significant thermal capacity it adds to the separator. Most separators will start to degrade at about 130°C, which is when it becomes potentially fire-hazardous. With an HPA-coated separator, however, the separator does not start to degrade until it reaches around 250°C. You, therefore, have a lot more time to manage the thermal issues in the battery, amongst any other problems that may arise. Within an EV battery pack, several thermal management processes are in place, and having the ceramic-coated separator gives those other processes time to cool the battery down. Work is also being carried out on coating cathode particles with high-purity alumina to add stability to the battery cathode chemistry and in the anode when silica is added.
The other key market lies in the creation of synthetic sapphire. The main historical sapphire market started in the early 2000s with the development of LED lights and semiconductors, mainly used as a substrate. The material’s extremely hard nature makes it a durable solution for harsh environments. For example, it is used in various optical devices, in light detection and ranging (LiDAR) systems, and in high-tech guidance systems.
On top of establishing the operational parameters of the process, ChemX is seeking to collaborate with end users to develop products with the optimum purity and morphological specifications needed for their process. The flexibility of the HiPurA® process enables the production of different products, morphologies, and purities within a single plant by changing the operating conditions.
HiPurA® technology was designed around several key parameters, including eliminating the need for a mine. Various technologies, particularly in Australia, focus on using kaolin as a feedstock because it is over 30% alumina but requires mining. The typical process for this requires a long development timeframe, combined with the risk of running a mine, and the process of purifying the kaolin is also very expensive.
In order to avoid these challenges, we wanted to develop an alternative process. Initially, we carried out a pre-feasibility study on the kaolin HPA path, but the capital costs were very high, meaning bringing it to market would be problematic. We quickly realised that this process would be difficult to get funded, despite it working very well technically. We knew that we would be unable to obtain offtakes until we were in production and that, without an offtake, we would not be able to gain funding. Realising this continuous cycle, we quickly called time on this idea, which was the catalyst to develop the HiPurA® technology.
With the HiPurA® technology, we use an aluminous chemical, removing the need for a mine. This scalable method allows us to begin with a small production capacity and grow relatively easily. Bringing the product to market as soon as possible is key, so the market can become familiar with using it. Producing a large volume upfront is problematic because the market is not used to using it, and it will take time to build up a market presence. We have therefore developed the process so it can be relatively easy to upscale, and it is modular, enabling a variety of potential options for the location of our processing facility. For example, in the UK and Europe, where we are close to end-buyers, reducing the carbon footprint of the logistics chain and the risk of supply disruptions.
Jamieson Tank Manganese
The Jamieson Tank Manganese project, 100% owned by ChemX, is focused on the development of manganese for use in lithium battery cathode chemistry. The use of manganese in battery chemistries is increasing to reduce costs and improve stability.
The Jamieson Tank deposit is on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and its particular mineralogy, cryptomelane, is a very simple mineralogy to upgrade. So far, we have completed one stage of test work to produce the manganese sulphate, with very encouraging results. We obtained a 99.7% pure manganese sulphate product without any purification steps. The core objective of this programme was to determine how well our ore went through the process that was selected and to clarify if it was the correct process to use. We are currently undertaking a second test work programme aimed at producing a cathode-grade, high-purity manganese sulphate monohydrate product to continue discussions and start qualification with cathode manufacturers.
The Kimba Kaolin – REE project
The other important project we have is a kaolin and rare earth element (REE) deposit. Kaolin is widespread, and we recently received a number of assays back that contained REE. We have a representative sample of REE with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) to undertake test work on the optimum method to separate the REE from the kaolin. Once we have these results, the next stage of the development of the project will be made.
ChemX’s future goals for 2022 and beyond
The HiPurA® high-purity alumina project is our priority. We have commissioned a micro-plant which has the capacity to produce up to 5kg per day. So far, we have tested the technology in the laboratory and established that it works. The micro plant puts a continuous process in place. So, once we have finished developing the final product, we will know that the process works and then we can begin scaling up.
From our HiPurA® technology to our rare earths potential, the future is looking bright for ChemX. We are in a prime position to operate in the rapidly developing battery and decarbonisation markets. With the right people and the right projects, we are confident in our ability to deliver sustainable, long-term shareholder value while developing vital technologies for the clean energy transition.