Lithium (Li) marketed in numerous applications and is used in three basic form, ore and concentrate, metal, and chemical compound. Ores and concentrates are consumed by the glass, ceramic and porcelain. As metal lithium is the lightest metal on earth uses to increase tensile strength alloy. Lithium carbonate as chemical compound is consumed by ceramic industry (SME, 2006). Elemental lithium is flammable and very reactive. In nature, lithium occurs in compounded forms such as lithium carbonate requires chemical process to be made usable.
Until recently lithium was mostly used in the production of aluminums, ceramics and glass, but lithium-ion batteries are now the biggest growth area. Lithium converts chemical energy into electrical energy very efficiently. Analysts project that rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have the highest potential for future energy storage systems. Lithium is therefore in high demand, especially to power personal electronic goods like mobile phones, energy storage systems and (hybrid) electric vehicles.
Lithium is commonly extracted from either hard rock mining by an energy-intensive roasting and leeching process, or from salt lake brines. For salt lake brines, the brine are laid out in pools where it evaporates, leaving behind lithium and other minerals. Though it is relatively low-cost, the evaporation process can take up to two years, dependable to weather condition and it is difficult to get most of the lithium out of the brine. Indonesia does not have both; salt lake brine requires arid condition, for hard-rock mining perhaps because could not find it yet.
Worldwide lithium production is currently dominated by Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Worldwide demand for lithium chemicals was about 102,000 tons in 2010. This is expected to go up to as much as 320,000 by 2020, mostly because of increased electric-vehicle use. The world’s largest lithium resources are estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to be in Bolivia. Most manufacturers, including the world’s largest, in Chile, typically make the material by pumping brine into pools to evaporate in the sun for 18 to 24 months. This process leaves behind a concentrated lithium chloride that is converted into lithium carbonate.
In Indonesia, especially in geothermal field with water dominated system, the operator is bound to deal with the brine. During or after cooling process, the brine will be put together into the poll for precipitation and produced slurry, the after cooling brine require to be injected into the earth to maintain the geothermal system.
In some geothermal field in Indonesia, the slurry production are big and become problem how to dump it, the slurry itself contains mostly silica with some element and chemical compound. Lithium is one of the elements. Brine analysis from one geothermal field mentioning up to 40 milligram lithium for one liter brine, which is equal to 40 ppm. There are no analyses data come from solid slurry.
There are two common ways to extract lithium, one is use precipitation method and the other is electrolysis (anion-kation), the precipitation requires a lot of water and time during the process but less costly, the electrolysis is less time consume but more costly. It is still required to be tested which method is applied best to extract lithium from slurry. Besides the technical problem how to extract it, the legality about utilizing slurry become mine product is not yet determine. Legal entity also become a problem for geothermal operator with work load, best way is to puts mineral extraction into a separate company, shielding the geothermal operator from risk and letting each company focus on its core competencies.
Recently, one company in the U.S.A able to extract lithium from geothermal brine by put some proprietary medium that filters out dissolved solid from the flowing brine. This technology allows company to bypass the traditional evaporation process, because once a geothermal plant uses up hot brine to produce energy, then using membrane separation, absorption media and direct precipitation techniques, it separates materials, and eventually extracts lithium. These are all very conventional tools in a chemical engineer's toolkit. It also eliminates traditional methods of invasive mining or evaporation ponds that require significant land, water and energy use. Additionally, it produces virtually zero waste.
The process could be applied to other geothermal plants, although some have far lower concentrations of lithium, but theoretically it could replace all other forms of lithium mining because it is significantly cheaper than building or expanding new solar evaporation processes and plants. The geothermal plant supplies power to free the brine, excess steam, condensate and carbon dioxide that could be uses in its processes.
The company project it will have capacity to produce 16,000 tons of lithium carbonate annually. It is not clear that 16 kilotons lithium capacity produce are result from one geothermal field or several geothermal fields.
Indonesia could be a major lithium producer by looking at geothermal potential. Indonesia currently produces the third largest amount of geothermal power (1197 MW), after the U.S. (3092 MW) and the Philippines (1904 MW). Still, it is tapping less than 5 percent of its potential 29-gigawatt capacity, although not every geothermal field in Indonesia is water dominated system. Imagine if Indonesia could fully develop its geothermal potential and get lithium byproduct.
What is more concerned about is what happens to the lithium batteries when they are disposed of. It is a problem could turn into an opportunity by developing stringent certification systems and involving itself in the entire production cycle of lithium: mining, processing, leasing the batteries to users, and then collecting them for recycling.
A 2012 study titled “Science for Environment Policy” published by the European Union compares lithium ion batteries to other types of batteries available (lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride and sodium sulphur). It concludes that lithium ion batteries have the largest impact on metal depletion, suggesting that recycling is complicated. Lithium ion batteries are also, together with nickel-metal-hydride batteries, the most energy consuming technologies using the equivalent of 1.6 kg of oil per kg of battery produced. They also ranked the worst in greenhouse gas emissions with up to 12.5 kg of CO2 equivalent emitted per kg of battery. In a 2013 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out that nickel and cobalt, both also used in the production of lithium ion batteries, represent significant additional environmental risks.
Continuing demand for electronic devices such as mobile phones, combined with the development of electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries means that demand for lithium, which is already high will arise. Strong investment in lithium collection and recycling infrastructure and technologies, combined with effective regulation, could result in much higher collection and recycling rates for lithium batteries. Recycling lithium batteries system has been applied in several countries in Europe. The recovery rate of lithium ion batteries, even in first world countries, is in the single digit percent range, most batteries end up in landfill.
Extensive social and environmental impact assessments should also underpin new legislation on the procurement, waste and reuse of natural resources, including metals such as lithium. Investment in public awareness-raising programs about the environmental impacts of wasteful consumption of luxury items, including electronic goods, should also be prioritized. If the after used lithium recycle system could run smoothly, then the geothermal energy is really green and sustainable primary energy and its byproduct also green and sustainable energy.
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