Binnemans obtains prestigious ERC PoC Grant for lithium refining

On July 23, 2020, Prof. Koen Binnemans (SOLVOMET/SIM² KU Leuven) obtained European Research Council (ERC) funding for developing a novel (solvometallurgical) concept for battery-grade refining of lithium. Binnemans’ SOLVOLi project is one of 55 newly awarded ERC Proof of Concept (PoC) Grants. This funding is exclusively limited to ERC Grantees who want to explore the commercial or societal potential of research results obtained in their regular ERC project (cf. Koen Binnemans’ ERC Advanced Grant Project “SOLCRIMET”). The grants are part of the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020. Here below the public abstract of the SOLVOLi project is disclosed, along with additional information about the ERC PoC type of funding.


ERC PoC SOLVOLi project

The main objective of the SOLVOLi project is to yield the Proof of Concept of a solvometallurgical process for purification of lithium chloride to battery-grade (min. 99.5%) and to apply this process on three different resource streams: (1) impure LiCl produced by CaCl2 roasting of spodumene or petalite hard rocks; (2) Li-bearing slags from pyrometallurgical LIB recycling processes; (3) impure LiCl from brines. The technology comprises different solvometallurgical unit operations that can be coupled into an innovative flowsheet.

The SOLVOLi project has a duration of 18 months. The SOLVOLi team is led by Prof. Koen Binnemans (ERC ADG SOLCRIMET, SOLVOMET Group/SIM² KU Leuven). Apart from integrating several senior SOLVOMET Researchers, the SOLVOLi team also includes Dr. Peter Tom Jones (IRF Research Manager Sustainable Metallurgy, SIM² KU Leuven), Prof. Karel Van Acker (SAM Research Group, SIM² KU Leuven) and Jean Paul Gueneau de Mussy (KU Leuven Representative in the European Lithium Institute).

Public abstract ERC PoC SOLVOLi

To allow the rollout of e-mobility and stationary renewable energy storage in Europe, a secure, affordable and sustainable supply of battery-grade lithium salts for Li-ion batteries (LIBs) is key. However, Europe’s lithium supply chain is extremely vulnerable: Europe’s primary lithium resources (present as “hard rock”) are underexploited and, even if lithium would be mined domestically, there is no lithium refining capacity available in Europe to process the lithium into battery-grade lithium salts, i.e. Li2CO3 and LiOH (with the latter being vital for the emerging Li-ion NMC battery chemistries with lower Co and enriched Ni content). Concurrently, the state of the art Li2CO3 refining methods (cf. China, Latin America…) come with a large eco-footprint, while the conventional conversion of Li2CO3 to the coveted LiOH generates vast volumes of waste and introduces new impurities.

Based on an innovation developed in the PI’s ERC Advanced Grant SOLCRIMET, SOLVOLi aims to develop the Proof of Concept for a disruptive, solvometallurgical flowsheet for the production, via LiCl, of LiOH. As this flowsheet allows to bypass the Li2CO3 step, SOLVOLi lowers the overall water, energy, CO2 and reagent footprint of LiOH production. Apart from validating and pre-demonstrating the novel flowsheet, SOLVOLi comprises a thorough IPR and upscaling strategy, in close collaboration with EU-based companies. SOLVOLi takes advantage of the fact that most of their decisions on lithium refining investments in Europe still need to be made, opening the door for the commercialisation of the new SOLVOLi process.

Application of this flowsheet contributes to building up the urgently needed lithium refining capacity in Europe for both domestic lithium (hard rocks & slags from pyrometallurgical LIB recycling) and imported lithium resources. As such, SOLVOLi facilitates the EC's strategic battery value chain ambitions (COM(2019)176)) and supports A New Industrial Strategy for Europe (COM(2020)102).

ERC Proof of Concept funding?

The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premiere European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects in Europe. To date, the ERC has funded close to 10,000 top researchers at various stages of their careers. It offers four core Grant schemes: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants. The ERC has a budget of over €13 billion for the years 2014 to 2020, part of Horizon 2020.

Apart from these core Grant types, ERC also awards so-called Proof of Concept (PoC) Grants, which are worth €150,000 each. PoC Grants provide top up funding that can be used to explore business opportunities, prepare patent applications or verify the practical viability of scientific concepts.

The PoC Grant scheme is only open to researchers who are or have been previously funded by the ERC. They can apply for funding in one of the three rounds of the call every year and the final deadline in 2020 is 17 September. The budget for the whole 2020 competition is €25 million.

In July 2020 the ERC awarded a total of 55 new PoC Grants (out of 172 applications). The grants were secured by researchers working in 11 countries: Austria (1 grant), Belgium (6), Germany (8), France (8), Israel (2), Italy (5), Netherlands (7), Spain (6), Sweden (2), Switzerland (2) and the UK (8).

Biography Koen Binnemans

Koen Binnemans (ERC Advanced Grant holder, SOLCRIMET) is professor of inorganic chemistry at the Department of Chemistry of KU Leuven (Belgium) and heads the SOLVOMET Group. He is specialised in metallurgical chemistry (solvometallurgy and hydrometallurgy) and has developed a core expertise in the chemistry of critical metals, in ionic liquids and solvent extraction (SX). Koen Binnemans has published 503 research articles in peer-reviewed journals (according to the ISI Web of Science Core Collection) in his scientific career, resulting in 23,448 citations  and an h-index of 72 (status on 29 May 2020). The full publication list can be found on the following website: https://lirias.kuleuven.be/cv?u=U0007851

Within his SOLVOMET Research Group, new, more efficient and environmentally-friendly processes are developed for the recovery and separation of critical metals, with emphasis on rare earths and battery metals (cobalt, nickel, lithium). A competitive advantage of the SOLVOMET Group is the combined expertise of organic synthesis, coordination chemistry, inorganic spectroscopy and solvent extraction. The research activities of the SOLVOMET Group range from fundamental research (synthesis of new ionic liquids and extractants) to strategic basic research and applied research (development of industrially relevant separation processes).

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