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The future of cleaner, longer-lasting lithium ion batteries

Since commercial introduction in the 1990’s, lithium ion batteries have sparked a rapidly expanding industry. In 20111, the lithium ion market was worth US$11-bn, and it is estimated that by 2020, the market will reach upwards of US$43-bn. 

A growing range of new applications, including electric vehicles, are expected to provide the new market growth. Ford Motors predicts production of electric vehicles will account for 25% of its vehicle line-up by 2020, and Hyundai has committed a lifetime guarantee to its electric vehicles using lithium ion batteries with manganese spinel – a cathode material. 

With the growing market for lithium ion batteries comes the growth in demand for the internal components, including several critical metals, with the biggest demand being for electrolytic manganese dioxide (EMD). Demand for EMD is predicted to double by 2021. 

American Manganese, a British Columbia-based metals company, is developing the only North American deposit of manganese, which potentially could be in production by 2014. The company’s vision is to become the lowest cost producer of electrolytic manganese metal (EMM) and EMD worldwide. 

President and CEO, Larry Reaugh is a passionate proponent of the manganese market and the growth potential of lithium ion batteries; “Lithium ion battery sales are approximately 30,000 tons per year, and expected to grow 20-30% per year. We’ve invested heavily into the EMM and EMD market to potentially create a supply chain in North America that isn’t at the mercy of foreign markets and import/export taxes and shipping fees. The current world price for EMM (supply controlled by China at 98.4%) is around US$1.30 per pound, while the US price is around US$1.63 per pound. China has a 20% export duty on EMM, and the US a 14% import duty. We expect that our production of EMM will be less than the current global and US pricing,” he says. 

American Manganese has retained Kemetco Research of Richmond, BC to undertake research in the production of an improved lithium manganese dioxide. “The current challenge is to produce a material that is free from any potential impurities,” says Reaugh. “Research with Kemetco in future will focus on producing test batteries and optimizing the final products, creating longer lasting and higher purity lithium ion battery material”. 

American Manganese has developed a patented hydrometallurgical process for refining manganese that is cleaner and more energy efficient than any other commercially available method. A study by cleantech analysis and consulting firm Kachan & Co. titled “American Manganese’s Clean Extraction Process” concluded that American Manganese’s extraction and refinement process of low grade manganese ore could not only place the company in the lowest percentile of producers of EMM globally, but also positions American Manganese as a mining company with minimal environmental impact. 

Automotive Industries (AI) asked Reaugh what impact the company’s patented hydrometallurgical process will have on the industry?
Traditional electrolytic manganese refinement includes roasting, which requires large amounts of energy to generate heat of upwards of 1,000 degrees centigrade, placing high demands on energy. Our process is virtually in a closed-loop system, with the heat from sulphur burning balancing out the energy requirements needed to produce manganese carbonate. This process not only allows us to refine low-grade deposits on a potentially low-cost model, but also in an energy efficient fashion. 

AI: Why is your Arizona property so important?
: Manganese is currently the fourth-most traded metal globally. Demand for electrolytic manganese is increasing at an exponential rate, and yet there is no active production of electrolytic manganese metal or any manganese in North America. Artillery Peak is an historical deposit which was used to supply North American steel mills and to shore up U.S. government stockpiles of critical metals after the 2nd World War. We feel that Artillery Peak will once again become an important resource in North America. 

AI: What role do you see your company playing in helping reduce North America’s dependence on Chinese imports?
: Some 98% of all electrolytic manganese metal in today’s market comes from Chinese sources. As China continues to develop, those resources are going to be allocated towards internal projects, and exports will be reduced. This will create a drastic shortage in the supply of manganese in North America. Even as it stands today, Chinese export taxes and American import duties are increasing the cost of electrolytic manganese by 34%. Our project will not only fill the gap left by reduced Chinese exports, but also provide the product at a less expensive rate. 

AI: Why is manganese such a critical raw material for the automotive industry?
: Electrolytic manganese dioxide is the largest component of lithium ion batteries. The automotive industry has made it clear they are focused on increasing the production of electric vehicles powered by lithium ion batteries. Recent market research predicts the lithium ion battery market for transportation uses will grow 700% by 2017. 

AI: Tell us about American Manganese’s production of high-grade lithium manganese dioxide – when do you see commercial production starting?
: We initiated the project with Kemetco at the beginning of March of this year. It’s our expectation to spend the first three months focusing on the production of high purity electrolytic manganese dioxide and chemical manganese dioxide. After that we will begin research on improved lithium manganese dioxide. Our last six months will be dedicated to producing test batteries and the final product. If everything goes according to plan, we should have a commercially available product within a year’s time.
AI: What impact will the Kemetco process have on automotive battery manufacturers? Tell us a little about the Kemetco process.
The challenge with lithium ion batteries right now is that current materials have impurities which lead to lower electric charges and retention. The Kemetco research process looks to reduce those impurities. The process works in conjunction with our hydrometallurgical process, avoiding grinding and roasting of the raw ore – which is primarily responsible for impurities in the final product.
AI: What role do you see for your company in the global race towards green technologies?
What most people tend to forget about green technology is that it is wholly dependent on the mining industry. Turbines, solar panels, lithium batteries and other green technologies all require metals from our industry. Therefore, it’s important to set a precedent in the industry for responsibly mining the materials that go towards green technology. That’s why we are proud to potentially mine manganese in an environmentally and energy-efficient manner. It’s our hope that as technology improves, the mining industry will continue to find alternative ways to extract minerals in a sustainable manner.