By Dr Emilio E. Bunel, Sociedad Química y Minera (SQM), Chile.
The market for lithium, lithium minerals, and lithium chemicals has seen major changes over the last four years in terms of supply and demand and will continue to evolve and grow over the coming five years and beyond. During 2013– 17, global lithium consumption increased at nearly 9% annually, with growth of more than 19% per year forecast over the next five years. The main driver for this growth in demand has been lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles (EVs), including battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs).
Lithium is sourced by evaporation and concentration of lithium-containing brines or from metallurgical processing of hard rock lithium-bearing pegmatite deposits, mainly containing spodumene. Brine from salt lakes in Chile, Argentina, the United States, and China dominate lithium raw material production by source in 2017. Most of Australian ore, mostly spodumene, is shipped to China as unconcentrated ore for conversion to lithium carbonate.
The large-scale commercialization of new energy storage technologies is essential to the development of electric vehicles, as well as to distributed renewable electric power generation and consumer electronics. Energy storage, which should help mitigate the issues of pollution, global warming and fossil-fuel shortage, is becoming more important than ever, and Li-ion batteries are now the technology of choice to develop renewable energy technology and electric vehicles. Given the importance, continual innovation within a broad range of science is necessary to improve the variety of energy storage applications in both developed and developing markets.
What should Chile and the rest of the so-called lithium triangle do to take advantage of this precious mineral resource?
Emilio Bunel received his M.S. in Chemical Engineering in 1980 from the University of Chile and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1988. He began his professional career at DuPont Central Research as a member of the Catalysis Group working on new catalytic processes to produce nylon intermediates. In 2001 Bunel was hired by Eli Lilly to establish the Catalysis Group within the Discovery Research Organization. In 2003 he was appointed Associate Director at Amgen, Inc., and subsequently in January 2008, Research Fellow at Pfizer, Inc.
After spending twenty years in industry, in October 2008 Emilio Bunel was named director of the Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division at U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, position that he hold until June 2017. From June 2017 to October 2017 he was a Senior Advisor for the Physical Sciences and Engendering Directorate at Argonne.
In November 1, 2017, he was named VP for Innovation at SQM in Santiago, Chile. SQM is one the world largest producer of lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide for battery manufacturing.