Switching from gas to electric heating in lithium refineries: benefits and challenges
Lithium-ion batteries are in greater demand than ever. As more lithium refineries spring up around the world, we take a deep dive into the potential benefits – and challenges – of replacing gas-fired heating with electric heating solutions.
As demand for electric vehicles (EVs) continues to skyrocket, so does the global need for lithium-ion batteries. However, for battery technology to be truly part of a fossil-free future, manufacturers must also examine the climate impact of their own operations.
By replacing gas-fired heating with electric heating in the sulfuric acid roasting process, lithium producers stand to make significant cost, efficiency and environmental gains. But what about the potential pitfalls? We asked two Kanthal experts, Sachin Pimpalnerkar, Global Segment Manager for Renewables, and electrification specialist Daniel Burton, for their takes on how to reap the rewards – and overcome the obstacles – of making the switch.
Electric heating is a proven technology. According to Daniel Burton, there is a general misconception that electric heating is an unproven technology.
“It’s important to remember that we aren’t changing the actual process, just the way the heat is put in,” he says. “We do this using our standard heating elements that are already being used in the lithium-ion industry and for which we have extensive references.”
Electric heating offers significant efficiency benefits compared with gas heating. The first is in the form of thermal efficiency.
“When heating with gas, you lose a lot of hot air through the exhaust – and lost heat represents inefficiency,” Burton says, adding that one of the main things that make electric heating systems considerably more efficient is that they suffer no loss of heat through exhaust gases.
Vastly improved thermal efficiency translates directly to enhanced cost efficiency, as less energy is used.
Furthermore, as Sachin Pimpalnerkar explains, the sulfuric acid roasting process requires more equipment when gas heaters are used.
“This process traditionally involves a lot of complex duct work, burners, flow controls, dampers and fans,” he says. “Electric heating is less costly, more straightforward, and easier to maintain since you don’t need all the additional equipment.”
Electric heating is also less costly when it comes to man-hours, as it does not require constant supervision and can even be operated remotely.
Electric heating does not contaminate the working environment with CO2, NOx, CO, SOx or noise pollution, regardless of the energy source. Meanwhile, when powered by renewable energy, the entire process also releases zero emissions into the environment.
This is especially relevant to the fast-growing EV market.
If the calcination process uses no fossil fuels, it significantly reduces the carbon footprint of the battery
“Skeptics like to question how green an EV really is, arguing that the production of lithium-ion batteries emits a lot of carbon,” Burton says. “However, if the calcination process uses no fossil fuels, it significantly reduces the carbon footprint of the battery.”
Since electric heating is a more controlled heating process, the temperatures and heating zones can be fine-tuned, leading to improved quality.
“Electric heating allows excellent temperature control, which influences yield and production quality,” Pimpalnerkar says. “Fewer rejections translate directly to higher production efficiency.”
Installation and maintenance
Electric heating is easier to install. All you need is electricity, which all facilities have, even those that may not always have access to gas.
“The elimination of the complex duct work and surrounding equipment facilitates easier installation,” Pimpalnerkar says.
“Furthermore, the less equipment you have, the less there is to maintain.” he adds. “In this case, you simply place electric heating elements in a furnace and switch it on.”
Whereas gas burners require regular recalibration, the electric system does this automatically, further reducing maintenance needs.
If you have worked with gas heating for many years, you may be apprehensive about making the switch to electric. However, Pimpalnerkar and Burton believe these concerns are largely unfounded, since electricity makes operations easier, safer and, in the long term, more profitable.
An electric heating system can be placed anywhere you would use a gas burner.
“You can use the same furnace: simply pull out the gas burners and related equipment and put in the electric heating system,” says Burton.
“You may need to invest in your incoming power supply,” he acknowledges. “But the capacity need could be less than anticipated due to the improved thermal efficiency.”
Electric heating is as easy – or easier – to install than gas.
“Setup is much easier – you just switch on the power supply, and the controls take care of next steps,” Pimpalnerkar says. “You don’t need gas lines or exhaust venting.”
The same goes for maintenance, which is almost nonexistent.
“The heating elements need replacing every few years, something that can easily be done by an on-site electrician,” he adds.
Access to green electricity
It goes without saying that switching to electric makes more sense in countries such as Canada and the Nordics where there is ready access to affordable renewable electricity. However, access is expanding elsewhere, including in Germany, where green electricity clusters are being established to support projects of this kind.
As Daniel Burton points out, it is worth considering making the switch even in markets where access to green power is not yet as widespread – especially since many will be expanding access to renewables in the coming years.
“Given the current political situation, gas has become very volatile, in terms of both cost and supply, and many companies are looking to be less reliant on it,” he says.
Costs compared with gas
While the cost of electricity may vary from country to country, Burton believes we are witnessing a global shift in favor of electricity.
“This will become more apparent as more renewables take off,” he says. “While the cost of all kinds of energy has gone up, gas has increased the most.”
Investment costs and ROI
When switching from gas to electric, the return on investment (ROI) depends on the cost of electricity versus gas and where the factory is located. For example, in countries with high penalties on CO2 emissions, switching to carbon-neutral production is increasingly becoming an imperative.
While retrofitting an existing system can be quite costly at first, Burton explains, the payback in most cases should be fairly quick.
“For any customers interested in a gas-to-electric conversion, we can evaluate the payback time and assist with the ROI calculation,” he says.
Training and production knowhow
For factory operators, the switch from gas to electric has no negative impact.
“Once up and running, the electric furnace operates in the same way as a gas furnace,” says Pimpalnerkar. “The interface is almost exactly the same and there is no change in production methods. The one important difference operators will notice is this: no harmful gas, no noise and no safety concerns about gas being present on the shop floor.”
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