South Korea commercialization Lithium-Extraction from Seawater

POSCO will seek to commercialize technologies to extract lithium from sea water together with the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs and the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources.

POSCO and the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs will each invest 15 billion KRW ($13.2 million) and 30 billion KRW ($26.4 million) for five years from this year until 2014 respectively, and the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources and POSCO`s RIST will be in charge of the research and development to establish related commercialization facilities.

The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs and the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources have promoted the `Marine Dissolved Resource Extraction Technology` project since 2000 and succeeded in securing the original technology to extract lithium from sea water in 2009.

If this research succeeds, POSCO will construct a commercial production plant producing 20~100 thousand tons of lithium carbonate annually. The demand for lithium which currently depends all on imports is approximately 5,000 tons annually, but is expected to increase to 20,000 tons. Success of lithium commercialization by POSCO is expected to lead to approximately 200 million USD in import replacement and 800 million USD of export effects.

South Korea will finish building a research facility and offshore plant in the first half of this year and could start extracting lithium from 2012 according to Choi Byung-gwan, spokesman at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM).

Researchers who worked on a seawater project in Japan for some 30 years concluded the technology was five times too expensive to commercialize. South Korea’s land, transport and maritime ministry claims it has a technology that’s 30 percent more efficient than the Japanese technology.

Overall land resources are about 14 million tons and lithium is then recovered from ores or brines. There is 230 billion tons of lithium in seawater, but the lithium concentration in the seawater is quite dilute (0.1-0.2 ppm). Japan and South Korea are leading countries to develop the technique about lithium recovery from seawater recently.

Several methods for recovery of lithium from seawater have been investigated, such as ion exchange resins, solvent extraction, co-precipitation, membrane processes and adsorption. Among the various methods for element separation, the adsorption method is the most promising for the lithium/ seawater system from economic and environmental viewpoints.

A number of different adsorbents has been investigated for the selective lithium recovery from the fundamental standpoint, and also for recovery from seawater. However, the adsorbent based on manganese dioxides and its composites seems to be the most proper one, because of its high adsorption capacity in alkaline medium (pH of seawater is around 8.1). It shows also specific selectivity for Li+ among alkali and alkali earth ions.

The koreans have been developing marine dissolved lithium abstraction technology since 2000.

Brian Jaskula, the U.S. Geologicical Survey’s mineral commodity specialist, says obtaining lithium from geothermal waters does have potential for success. Jaskula pointed to a company called Simbol Mining that’s now “exploring the feasibility” of drawing lithium from geothermal sources, and some 60 mining firms are conducting feasibility studies that could potentially lead to more than $1 billion in new lithium projects in Argentina, Nevada and Serbia over the next several years. If successful there are a vast number of geothermal sources in the western United States that could be exploited.

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