SQM, a Chilean company that is one of the world’s biggest producers of lithium, and Argonne National Laboratory are collaborating to 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 US Geological Survey estimating that batteries comprise 65% 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.
Evaporation ponds at SQM’s lithium mining site in the Salar de Atacama, in Chile. (Image by SQM.)
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.—Veronica Gautier, SQM’s head of innovation
The formal analysis began last year and is using Argonne’s open-source modeling 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 this year.
Jarod Kelly, a 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.
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.—Michael Wang
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.