Industry Article

How Cavity Pumps Help Secure the Lithium Supply Chain

December 10, 2023 by Tom Evans, NETZSCH Pumps USA

Engineering designs from electric vehicles to energy storage systems require a robust lithium supply chain. Here’s what engineers need to know and how progressing cavity pumps can help.

The demand for lithium-ion batteries has risen rapidly over the past several years. It will only grow exponentially as technology from electric vehicles to battery energy storage systems becomes more commonplace.

The widespread electrification of industries from automotive to manufacturing presents exciting opportunities for engineering professionals. These opportunities span research and development, design, manufacturing, maintenance, and charging process optimization for technologies ranging from stationary storage systems to electric aircraft.


A lithium supply chain is crucial to battery manufacturing. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


But for engineers’ designs to become actuality, a complex supply chain must flow smoothly to sustain the production of lithium batteries. This article uncovers the inner workings of the supply chain and discusses how a proper approach to pumping can help solve challenges that prohibit engineering professionals from actualizing their vision.


The Foundation of the Lithium Supply Chain

Lithium extraction is at the foundation of this supply chain, presenting a key problem surrounding the effective pumping and conveying of chemically complex lithium slurries. This is a delicate process that, if not done correctly, can ultimately degrade battery quality. These same challenges persist throughout the manufacturing process and electrode coating process. This means that if the process of pumping and conveying lithium is not carried out properly, this is not only a supply chain problem but can also become a problem that affects engineers.


Rapid Rise in Lithium Battery Demand

The National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, released by the Department of Energy’s Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries, projects a continuing rapid rise in demand for lithium-ion batteries for commercial and national defense markets. The report says commercial and passenger EVs, stationary storage, and aviation will comprise the commercial U.S. lithium-ion battery market.

Drawing on research conducted by Argonne National Laboratory, the report  projects massive growth in EV battery demand, noting the “demand from U.S. annual sales of passenger EVs alone is projected to surpass anticipated 224 GWh of lithium-ion cell manufacturing capability in 2025.” Similarly, the report projects a rapid rise in the adoption of lithium-battery-based stationary energy storage, projecting a more than 500% increase over five years, from 1.5 GW in 2020 to 7.8 GW in 2025.

Lithium batteries also enable electric aircraft to perform emission-free flights and provide advanced energy storage for the critical missions of national defense sectors.


Figure 1. Projected rise in global lithium-ion EV batteries. Image used courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory (Page 12)


This widespread electrification of automobiles, stationary storage, aviation, and defense allows engineers to work on novel projects requiring their unique talents. Lithium-ion batteries serve as the backbone of this paradigm shift in electrification, and lithium, in turn, serves as a critical enabler. This begs the question: Will there be adequate supply to meet this rapid rise in demand?


Reducing Lithium Shortage Risk

Consider a case where the entire U.S. car fleet is converted into electric vehicles overnight. This would require three times more lithium than produced in the entire world, according to a recent UC Davis/Climate and Community Project study. “U.S. demand for lithium far outpaces current global production of the mineral,” the study confirmed.

The risk of lithium shortage is a highly contentious issue. Some argue it is inevitable, while others say it is overblown. The reality is that the U.S. is one of the leading providers of lithium reserves worldwide. According to a 2023 Mineral Commodity Summary by the U.S. Geological Survey, 12 million tons of lithium reserves have been discovered in the United States alone, putting the U.S. behind Bolivia and Argentina.


Figure 2. U.S. lithium supply map. Image used courtesy of the US Geological Survey


Reducing the risk of lithium shortage is not as much a problem as a lack of available reserves and ensuring available reserves are extracted efficiently and effectively. This process is critical to engineers who work on the vanguard of today’s industries, as they rely on this mineral to bring their designs to life.


Securing the Lithium Supply Chain 

Lithium extraction, refining, and processing are the foundations of the lithium supply chain. However, processing lithium involves overcoming key issues related to pumping and conveying highly chemically complex lithium slurries.

Lithium is one of the most challenging products for pumping in the chemical sector. On one hand, this is because of the metal’s high reactivity, which means it does not occur freely in nature. On the other hand, lithium slurries are highly flammable, highly abrasive, have high amounts of solids, and can contain other components such as metal oxides, graphite, solvents, binders, alcohols, and acids. Pumps used for electrode coating services must convey these slurries without pulsations or pressure fluctuations and at low flow rates to ensure optimum battery cell production quality.


Progressing Cavity Pumps for Lithium Extraction

Progressing cavity pumps are a crucial technology that excels at pumping applications in battery production and recycling. The pump’s primary design feature is an eccentric screw principle where a spiral, single helix-shaped rotor rotates within a double helix elastomer stator which forms multiple cavities. The pumps trap a fixed amount of fluid in the multiple cavities, steadily and evenly moving each fluid-filled cavity through the pump during operation.

By minimizing direct contact between the wearing metal pump components and the pumped product, progressing cavity pumps reduce the risk of worn metal particles contaminating the process fluids, which can lead to electrical shorts in the battery cell.


Figure 3. NETZSCH NEMO progressing cavity pump. Image used courtesy of NETZSCH NEMO


Progressing cavity pumps are powerful, reliable tools for extracting, refining, and processing lithium and lithium slurries. They are commonly used for wet grinding, metering and mixing, coating, and recycling services—all key stages in lithium battery manufacturing.

Understanding how these pumping technologies keep the lithium supply chain flowing provides helpful context for engineers to understand the underpinnings of the broader industry trends involving lithium-ion batteries. The lithium supply chain must stay flowing to sustain industries from electric vehicles to energy storage and the forward-thinking engineers driving them. Progressing cavity pumps keep this supply chain moving freely, enabling engineers to bring their designs to life.