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Merging lithium battery supply chains

Metal Tech News - May 8, 2024

Talon and Argonne National Lab are working to transform iron waste products from nickel mines into a superior LFP battery cathode material.

A mix of battery types is needed for a rapid and sustainable transition to electric vehicles. While lithium-ion batteries with nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) cathodes will continue to be the main choice for longer-range EVs in North America, lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) offers an alternative for lower-cost cars used primarily for day-to-day commutes.

Talon Metals' Tamarack project in Minnesota could provide a domestic source of the mined materials needed for the cathodes (negative electrodes) in both NCM and LFP batteries.

While Tamarack is best known for its nickel, the high-grade deposits at this project also host cobalt, copper, and platinum group metals (PGMs) – all critical to energy transition technologies. What has been less talked about is that these deposits are also made up of roughly 8% iron, a common metal that would typically be considered a waste product at a nickel mine because the extra costs to recover it are not competitive with traditional iron ore operations.

Talon, however, sees the iron that will be mined anyway as an opportunity to maximize the value and minimize waste at Tamarack while also providing a product that will further America's energy transition ambitions.

"Legacy mineral processing naturally prioritizes the nickel, copper, cobalt, gold, and the platinum group elements in the rock, and often sends everything else to waste piles, failing to realize its inherent value. Our team saw that as a problem and an opportunity," said Talon Metals CEO Henri van Rooyen.

To transform a legacy problem into a modern mining opportunity, the company is working with U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory to develop a process that will upgrade the iron sulfides that are going to be mined from Tamarack into a high-quality LFP battery cathode product.

"Nickel concentrates produced from high-grade nickel ore contain four times more iron than nickel," Rooyen said. "By using this iron to produce LFP batteries, Talon can supply ingredients for multiple battery technologies, generate a new income stream and reduce waste. And we can substantially increase the number of batteries manufactured from the same ton of rock compared with conventional approaches."

Enhanced LFP cathode material

Under a collaborative research and development agreement, Argonne and Talon are working to develop a simpler and lower-cost process to produce a high-quality LFP cathode material from the iron sulfides at Tamarack.

In addition to developing a process that makes good use of a traditional waste stream at high-grade nickel sulfide mines, Argonne scientists believe this product made from Tamarack iron could outperform materials currently produced for LFP cathodes.

"Because the iron compound we're accessing is a by-product of nickel production, it has impurities such as nickel and manganese," said Donghyeon Kang, a materials scientist at Argonne. "These impurities could actually enhance the cathode's performance. Battery manufacturers often intentionally introduce small amounts of metal impurities into cathode materials – a process known as doping – to enhance their performance."

Under the collaboration with Talon, researchers at Argonne's Materials Engineering Research Facility (MERF) will develop, optimize, and implement an LFP synthesis process and then test the performance of coin battery cells containing the resultant iron cathode material.

Talon's processing experts will collaborate with MERF scientists to calibrate the iron compounds' purity and composition to enhance cathode production.

The overall objective is to make commercial-quality LFP cathodes from Tamarack iron sulfides.

Merging battery supply chains

If successful, the research being carried out under the Talon-Argonne collaboration would provide multiple benefits to domestic battery supply chains.

These advantages would begin at Tamarack itself, which would increase the ESG credentials of the nickel, cobalt, copper, and PGMs produced by transforming a traditional waste product into a high-quality LFP material that could enhance and diversify America's energy transition.

Talon Metals

Geologists log core from drilling at Tamarack, a deposit that hosts nickel, cobalt, copper, platinum group metals, and iron that the United States needs for its transition to clean energy technologies.

The production of a quality LFP cathode material would help the U.S. from being stuck with producing only traditional NCM batteries for EVs and renewable energy storage, which puts a lot of strain on the materials supply chains.

In addition to diversifying the supply chain, LFP batteries can lower the costs of EVs that do not need a 300-mile-plus range, as well as stationary storage that is not constrained by the same energy density requirements as automobiles.

The capacity to produce the LFP cathode materials in the U.S., however, is currently limited.

The research being carried out by Argonne and Talon could potentially change that by offering domestic battery manufacturers and recyclers a new LFP synthesis technology that blurs the lines between NCM and LFP supply chains.

In addition to making cathode materials for both battery types from the same mine, a spectrum of battery densities and cost points could also emerge if naturally doped LFP cathode material produced as a nickel byproduct outperforms the current standard for this lower-cost battery type.

If effective, the process developed by Argonne could also increase the profitability and ESG credentials of other U.S. nickel mining and processing projects. This, in turn, could encourage more companies to develop sulfide nickel mines in the U.S. that deliver the metals needed for the top two EV battery types, along with PGMs for hydrogen fuel technologies and copper to wire the clean energy future.

"Our partnership with Talon Metals seeks to make more efficient use of critical materials in domestic battery supply chains so that the U.S. can rely less on other countries to achieve its clean energy goals," said Jeff Spangenberger, the materials recycling group leader at Argonne.

This is exactly the "full value mining" approach Talon is taking at Tamarack.

"We realize that if society allows the mining industry to extract minerals from the earth, they have every right to expect us to extract all the valuable elements that are useful to society," said Rooyen.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Metal Tech News

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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.


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