The theme of this years’ World IP Day is “innovate for a greener future”. Griffith Hack is proud of our collaboration with the many organisations and individuals that are focused on technological developments which don’t come at the cost of our environment. This year we are excited to share the ground-breaking work of Australian innovator Richard Hunwick of ICS Pty Ltd.

Richard Hunwick, one of Griffith Hack’s long-standing clients, has been innovating towards a greener future for many years.

Prior to researching his current lithium production technology, Richard innovated and experimented for many years in the field of carbon capture and storage by mineral carbonation. He developed a process that captured and converted CO2 emissions from power stations into stable and benign mineral carbonates, for repatriation back to the earth.

The idea 

Building on the expertise he developed over time, Richard saw an opportunity to focus on cleaner ways of producing lithium and lithium chemicals. Lithium technology is widely seen as a critical pathway to the electrification of road and other transport, and eventually the permanent replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy: essential for a greener future. Today South America’s ‘salars’ (dry salt lakes located in the ‘lithium triangle’ of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile) are the main source of the world’s lithium supply for battery production. However, the security of supply in the salars is jeopardised by sovereign risk issues, environmental challenges, and doubts over how much recoverable lithium is left.

The problem  

Worldwide, investment in value-adding lithium operations has increased rapidly, from prospecting new lithium resources to the final assembly of complete battery packs. This prompted a renewed interest in lithium recovery from various hard-rock silicate minerals, particularly spodumene. Until recently there was little interest in exploring these mineral deposits, because the applicable refining processes largely unchanged since the 1930’s are expensive, complicated, hazardous and environmentally challenging. In spite of these challenges, prospecting for and the development of hard-rock lithium resources are accelerating.

The solution  

Enter Richard Hunwick and his ‘earth-friendly’ hard-rock lithium ore refining process. Richard ‘leaped outside the box’, believing nitric acid could form the basis of a superior process for recovering lithium values from hard-rock silicate minerals. He discovered that the use of nitric acid uniquely allows for the convenient and economical conversion of the lithium values into lithium oxide (lithia). Lithia is the ideal starting point for the manufacture of pure, marketable lithium chemicals including lithium hydroxide & lithium carbonate (the forms preferred by battery manufacturers), as well as the much more valuable lithium metal. Critically, Richard’s carbon capture and mineralization expertise helped him process the hard-rock silicate minerals in an environmentally sound way; recovering and recycling the nitric acid along the way. The resultant process is economically more attractive than standard hard-rock lithium ore refining processes. Richard’s approach produces no hazardous waste, then captures and utilises CO2 emissions in order to produce the lithium carbonate product.

The future 

Richard’s company Integrated Carbon Sequestration Pty Ltd (ICS) is currently preparing to construct a pilot plant in Perth, Western Australia, with the assistance of the CSIRO (the Australia’s national public research organisation). It will demonstrate that a lithium ore refinery can be sited adjacent to a battery chemicals plant; forming a ‘total lithium battery manufacturing complex’. Such a complex could import concentrates and combine these with the transition metals required for battery cathode production, with exceptionally low environmental emissions (again, with the nitric acid used recovered and reused in the refinery). Alternatively, such a refinery can be sited adjacent to a mine, to cleanly produce an exportable and valuable product, and to repatriate a ‘cleaned’ and benign residue ensuring that the only materials leaving the total mine-site are lithium chemicals.