The Elements of Innovation Discovered

Fluorspar: the forgotten battery mineral

Metal Tech News - February 19, 2024

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence forecasts more than 1.6 million metric tons of fluorspar per year will be needed for lithium-ion batteries by 2030.

While Elon Musk has not yet implored the mining sector to "please mine more fluorspar," the demand for this mineral critical to lithium-ion batteries has been rising with the adoption of electric vehicles and is expected to continue its upward trajectory through the end of the decade.

"While cobalt, nickel, and lithium hog the headlines, another critical mineral is quietly gaining prominence in the lithium-ion battery revolution: fluorspar," Benchmark Mineral Intelligence penned in a Feb. 13 report on the largely overlooked battery mineral.

The world-leading battery supply chain analytical firm forecasts that the battery sector alone will need more than 1.6 million metric tons of fluorspar by 2030. This will make battery manufacturing a significant demand driver for this mineral traditionally used primarily for refrigerants, steelmaking, and aluminum smelting.

And, like most critical minerals, China is the world's primary supplier of fluorspar and the various chemicals made from this raw material.

According to the latest edition of the U.S. Geological Survey's Mineral Commodities Summaries, China accounted for roughly 65% of global fluorspar production in 2023. While the annual USGS commodities reports do not track how much of the fluorspar is going into batteries, the global demand for this mineral has climbed roughly 50% over five years, which coincides with the rise in lithium-ion battery production for EVs.

In its Critical Materials Assessment 2023, the U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that lithium-ion batteries will account for 22% of total fluorspar demand, up sharply from roughly 5% in use today.

"Current production capacity can meet nearly all short-term demand projections, but it will fall short of medium-term demand projections," DOE inked in its report. "China accounted for 68% of global production in 2022, and its market dominance is expected to continue."

Multiple lithium battery uses

What makes fluorspar so critical to lithium-ion battery technologies?

The answer to this question is as surprising as it is technical.

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence points out that fluorspar currently lends its unique properties to four key areas of the lithium-ion battery-making process:

Polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) – This polymer derived from fluorspar serves as the critical binder material holding active cathode materials together. Fluorspar-derived binders offer irreplaceable resistance to harsh chemical environments, as well as excellent performance in high-voltage batteries. The growing demand for high-nickel cathodes, with their superior energy density, is expected to further boost PVDF consumption.

PVDF coating of pouch cell separators – PVDF is also used to coat separators that enhance the safety and stability of pouch cell lithium batteries popular in consumer electronics and smaller battery applications. Though the demand for this application is currently smaller than for cathode binders, the rising popularity of pouch cells is expected to power rapid growth moving forward.

Lithium hexafluorophosphate (LiPF6) electrolyte – LiPF6 serves as the key electrolyte salt that facilitates ion movement in lithium-ion batteries. The production of this electrolyte salt relies heavily on hydrofluoric acid derived from fluorspar.

Anode purification – Hydrofluoric acid also plays a crucial role in removing impurities like silica from natural flake graphite. The removal of impurities from graphite enhances the performance and safety of the anode. As demand increases for high-purity graphite, which is the single largest ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, so does the reliance on hydrofluoric acid and the fluorspar it is derived from.

phonlamaiphoto – stock.adobe.com

Fluorspar-derived products play an essential role in several EV battery components and processes.

Potentially adding to the future demand for fluorspar, a team of scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories have developed a fluorine-containing electrolyte that performs as well in sub-zero conditions as it does at room temperature.

The electrolytes currently being used in electric vehicle batteries begin to freeze in sub-zero temperatures, limiting the effectiveness of charging.

This phenomenon was demonstrated by the EVs that were frozen in place during the cold snap that gripped much of the U.S. this past winter.

In current EV batteries, the LiPF6 salt is dissolved in carbonate solvents. These solvents are the culprit in batteries that refuse to charge in cold weather.

The DOE national lab scientists came up with a new fluorine-based solvent for an electrolyte that retained stable energy storage capacity for 400 charge-discharge cycles at minus four degrees Fahrenheit.

"We are patenting our low-temperature and safer electrolyte and are now searching for an industrial partner to adapt it to one of their designs for lithium-ion batteries," Zhengcheng "John" Zhang, a senior chemist and group leader in Argonne's Chemical Sciences and Engineering division said in May of last year.

After last winter's EV deep freeze, there are likely several industrial partners wanting to develop this low-temperature electrolyte that will drive up demand for fluorspar.

Opportunities and challenges

Benchmark says the growing use of fluorspar products in lithium-ion offers both opportunities and challenges for mining companies seeking to open new mines that could help meet the rising demand and diversify the supply chain for this lesser-known battery mineral.

One of the major challenges is that fluorspar prices have a history of being volatile, which can make the economics of operating a fluorspar mine difficult. These price swings also impact the downstream users of fluorspar products, including battery and EV manufacturers.

Fluorspar mining also raises environmental concerns that necessitate responsible mining and processing practices and technologies.

Both challenges can be alleviated, at least in part, by diversifying the fluorspar supply chain away from China. Having one country dominating the production of any given commodity adds inherent risks, and China is known for controlling supplies and prices of critical minerals based on its own needs and ambitions.

The communist nation is also not known for upholding the highest sustainability standards.

phonlamaiphoto – stock.adobe.com

A fluorite (fluorspar) specimen from New Mexico.

"[D]iversifying supply away from artisanal producers – particularly in China – is likely to improve the sustainability credentials of the industry," Benchmark wrote. "This is particularly true if additional supply can be funded in nations which already have an advanced and sophisticated mining industry."

The battery supply chain analyst points to Sigma Lithium Resources in Canada and Tivan in Western Australia as companies exploring new deposits of high-grade fluorspar that could help meet the growing demand and diversify the supply chain for this battery mineral.

"Addressing supply chain challenges, reducing price volatility, and prioritizing sustainability will be crucial to unlocking the full potential of this mineral in the burgeoning lithium-ion battery revolution," Benchmark wrote.

Fluorspar Market Outlook, a new report with detailed analysis of supply, demand, and prices out to 2030, was recently published by Benchmark.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Metal Tech News

Author photo

With more than 16 years of covering mining, Shane is renowned for his insights and and in-depth analysis of mining, mineral exploration and technology metals.

 

Reader Comments(0)

 
 
Rendered 04/21/2024 04:34