Donald S. Bubar, President and CEO of Avalon Advanced Materials Inc., discusses the vast applications of lithium as well as its potential for further innovation.
While lithium is widely acknowledged as a critical material in battery technologies, it has many other traditional applications and the potential for more through innovation. The first major commercial application of lithium was in high-temperature greases for aircraft engines during the second World War and later in nuclear fusion technologies.
Lithium has also long been recognised for it its benefits to human health, particularly in the treatment of depression, where lithium carbonate is commonly prescribed for bipolar disorder and as a mood stabiliser. As well as this, it may have potential in other medical applications. There is also data indicating that where lithium has occurred naturally in drinking water, communities drinking the water would suffer less manic depression and suicide rates would be lower than most other communities where the water did not contain lithium. Interestingly, an elder from the Indigenous community located closest to Avalon’s Separation Rapids lithium resource, shared stories of their traditional knowledge of the area. They explained that they had recognised the health benefits of the original outcrop of the lithium resource and referred to it as “the healing rock” and when community members were suffering from depression, they were encouraged to go and camp there and a week or two later would come back happy.
In the 1950s, Corning Inc. discovered how lithium could be used to produce very high strength glass-ceramics products which led to the manufacture of Corningware® cookware. Since then, there has been further innovation of other high strength glass-ceramic products such as Ceran® stovetops by the major German glass-ceramic manufacturer Schott Glass. In both cases, the rare high purity lithium aluminum silicate mineral, petalite, (LiAlSi4O10) was how lithium was introduced into the batch.
At that time, petalite was only produced in Zimbabwe’s Bikita Mine. However, Avalon’s Separation Rapids petalite resource now represents the world’s only other significant potential supply source of this rare mineral that is not controlled by China. The original resource, that was drilled off over 20 years ago, hosts 10 million tonnes, contains an average of 20% petalite and is open for expansion at depth. There are also several other petalite pegmatites on the property that have not yet been drilled.
Lithium-based high strength glass products
There is now a lot of innovation of new types of high strength glass and glass-ceramic products in various formulations that often use lithium (petalite) in the batch formulation. A lithium-based high strength glass product can now be turned to as an alternative for windshield glass in electric vehicles to contribute to future light-weighting of EVs as well as being used for display screens. Corning’s “Gorilla” glass, used primarily in computer and smartphone display screens is another example of an innovative high strength glass product that relies on lithium in the formulation.
Petalite has also been used to manufacture more durable container glass, and due to its lower melting temperatures, has resulted in reducing unit production costs. Another application of petalite is its use as an alternative flux in the manufacture of earthenware pottery, where it also imparts a property of thermal shock resistance.
Other applications include its use as an ingredient in rapid-firing, high-gloss ceramic glazes, thermal-shock resistant refractory products (kiln linings, crucibles, etc.) and as an additive to concrete to reduce or prevent Alkali Silicate Reaction (ASR), which is a phenomenon that causes swelling or cracking in concrete. In cold climates, this has contributed to an increased failure of reinforced outdoor concrete structures, which is now evident in Toronto with the ongoing repair work on the elevated Gardiner expressway. There is little doubt that a large new source of high-quality petalite will stimulate more research and development of other new applications for this unique specialty mineral.
Petalite is still the preferred way to introduce lithium into the batch formulation as alumina and silica are also ingredients in the glass composition and petalite incorporates them in a convenient ‘pre-mixed’ form.
Another example of an innovative new glass product that relies on lithium in its formulation is in high strength flexible glass. This is an incredible example of a new form of high strength glass product that is bendable but is still not breakable.
There are also growing numbers of applications for glass-ceramic products in advanced aerospace and defense technologies (hermetic seals), where their high strength, regardless of extreme temperature variations, is very relevant. Lithium in its chemical form is now also being looked at for further application in innovative new electronics technologies. With this abundance of innovation, it is clear there are further opportunities for development in products that rely on lithium beyond the field of battery technologies.
Avalon’s lithium innovation
High purity lithium chemical products (carbonate and hydroxide) and high purity lithium mineral (petalite) concentrates will continue to be in high demand for the foreseeable future until new supply sources are developed. Avalon’s Separation Rapids Project, with its diverse lithium mineralogy containing both petalite and lepidolite (lithium mica), is well positioned to serve the needs for various new lithium applications by being able to produce a variety of lithium products.
The company’s focus now is on utilising more efficient innovative processing methods both for producing the mineral concentrates and the battery materials chemical products. Innovative new concentration methods, such as sensor-based ore-sorting and dense media separation, offer environmentally beneficial ways to produce the mineral concentrates with minimal use of water and chemical reagents. Avalon has also innovated a process for producing lithium hydroxide using electrodialysis that extracts the lithium from the acidic solution and then allows for re-cycling of the acid to avoid generating significant waste materials.