POSCO, South Korea's leading steelmaker, said Thursday it is close to commercializing a new technology that can efficiently and quickly extract lithium directly from raw materials.
The company said its Research Institute of Industrial Science and Technology (RIST) has been perfecting a chemical reaction process to isolate the valuable silvery white metal from lithium-rich salt water and other impurities.
Lithium is a key material in high-capacity rechargeable batteries used to power mobile phones, laptop computers and electric vehicles (EVs). Rise in demand for EVs, in particular, has fueled demand for lithium.
As the largest producer of lithium rechargeable batteries, South Korea imports well over 10,000 tons of the material every year from countries such as Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and China.
POSCO said it has started work in June to build a fully operational pilot plant in Argentina's Jujuy Province. Once built, it can produce 200 tons of lithium per year, with full-fledged production expected in 2016. South America has many dried up salt-water lakes that are rich in lithium.
The steelmaker said RIST has been able to extract battery grade materials from lithium in as little as eight hours in the best possible case, and a month at the longest.
Most lithium is produced in a very slow evaporation process that can take 12-18 months.
Engineers said they have been able to greatly raise the extraction rate to as high as 80 percent from the lithium brine, compared with around 30 percent at present. The brine is a high concentration of the alkali metal found in salt-water lakes.