Ionometallurgy for low-temperature metal synthesis from metal oxides

Abstract

Metals and valuable metal compounds are important parts of our everyday lives with applications ranging from aluminum foil over circuit boards to high-performance alloys for engineering and buildings construction. Large-scale metal production processes provide access to metals contained in numerous naturally occurring ores, earths and minerals and should be considered one of the major drivers of industrialization, leading to a continuous increase in living standards. Thereby, metals are often present in the form of oxides or other compounds of low reactivity and high stability. This makes metal extraction an often energy-intensive, environmentally problematic endeavor, relying on high reaction temperatures around 1000 °C or aggressive, corrosive and toxic chemicals. A disruptive, new approach for more sustainable metal production could be ionometallurgy, i.e., metal extraction by means of ionic liquids (ILs) and deep eutectic solvents (DESs). ILs, per definition, are salts with a melting point below 100 °C, while DESs are eutectic mixtures of two or more reagents with a melting point below that of the individual components. Both classes of materials feature favorable properties, such as a good solubility for many inorganic salts. Ionometallurgy is a seemingly simple approach, dissolving metal oxides at moderate temperature in an IL or DES and subsequently either electrodepositing the respective metal or producing valuable metal compounds by downstream chemistry. This thesis elucidated the general feasibility of the direct ionometallurgical metal production from metal oxides in two betaine-based solvents, namely the IL betainium bis(trifluoromethylsulfonyl)imide ([Hbet][NTf2]) and a DES consisting of betaine hydrochloride, urea and glycerol in the molar ratio 1 : 4 : 2.5 ([Hbet]Cl/4U/2.5GLY). Initial solubility studies involved a broad screening of the reaction behavior of numerous metal oxides with different properties regarding the position of the metal in the periodic table, its oxidation state as well as the basicity of the oxide. Exploiting the Brønsted-acidic functional group of the betainium cation, metal oxide dissolution in this case follows the principle of an acid-base reaction. Correspondingly, [Hbet][NTf2] favors the dissolution of basic or amphoteric metal oxides, while acidic metal oxides remain unaffected. In-depth investigations were performed for the examples of copper, cobalt and aluminum and identified the metal oxide lattice energy, the crystal structure and the reaction temperature as well as complex stabilities of the metal ions as additional factors to influence the solubility. How additives can affect the reaction outcome in multiple ways was shown for the example of chloride. In the copper system, small amounts of chloride act catalytically, while larger concentrations not only decrease the reaction time but also exhibit a structure-directing effect. For cobalt oxides, chloride is assumed to be reaction-driving due to the high chloride affinity of cobalt(II). These results were supported by seven new crystal structures found in the course of these investigations. Thereby, for the first time, metal oxide dissolution in [Hbet][NTf2] was systematically investigated under water-poor conditions. Abstaining from aqueous IL solutions, although water was shown to promote metal oxide dissolution, enables access to several metals via electrodeposition. This is facilitated by the large electrochemical windows of [Hbet][NTf2] and [Hbet]Cl/4U/2.5GLY, amounting to −2.0–1.4 V and −2.3–0.9 V, respectively. Copper, cobalt, nickel, tin, lead, zinc, and small amounts of vanadium were shown to be electrochemically reducible, whereas manganese, molybdenum and aluminum could not be electrodeposited within the electrochemical stability range of the IL or DES. For the deposition of the noble metal copper, the chloride content, the deposition temperature and additional organic solvents were identified as crucial parameters for the deposition potential as well as the quality of the deposit. By copper-coating a steel plate, a potentially industrially relevant application was demonstrated. Compared to the conventional industrial process for copper production, this ionometallurgical approach could imply a significant simplification and proceed at much lower reaction temperatures. Starting from tenorite or oxidic copper waste, copper coatings could directly be producible avoiding multiple process steps. Furthermore, the cobalt system revealed, that the thorough understanding of the complex equilibria present in solution is crucial for the successful electrodeposition of the metal. Thus, no deposits were obtained when anionic [CoCl4]2– was the predominant cobalt complex species. The adjustment of the cobalt-to-chloride ratio is a suitable method to generate sufficient amounts of cationic cobalt complexes, allowing for the deposition of the metal. Overall, several metals were directly produced from their oxides by the ionometallurgical approach at temperatures below 175 ℃. This means a significant temperature reduction compared to the conventional processes. Encouragingly, [Hbet][NTf2] already showed first promising results when applied to industrially relevant starting materials, such as black mass for the recycling of lithium ion batteries or bauxite as a highly relevant, naturally occurring aluminum resource. While this qualifies ionometallurgy in principle as a considerable improvement regarding process sustainability, the impact of [Hbet][NTf2] and [Hbet]Cl/4U/2.5GLY was analyzed in more depth. Thereby, the recyclability of the solvents is considered a very important factor for the efficient implementation of ionometallurgy in larger scale. First experiments in a two-compartment electrochemical cell showed that metals can be electrodeposited cathodically with a tailorable anode reaction. The oxygen evolution reaction in an aqueous electrolyte proved as suitable benign oxidation reaction in the anode half cell. The intactness of [Hbet][NTf2] after metal electrodeposition in this set-up was evidenced by NMR spectroscopy, qualifying the IL for reuse in principle. As opposed to this, decomposition reactions were identified to take place in both the IL and the DES. At 175 °C, [Hbet][NTf2] undergoes the chloride-induced decomposition via a Hunsdieker and a Deacon reaction, which is avoidable by a lower reaction temperature of 150 °C. NMR studies suggest that [Hbet][NTf2] does not decompose during the ionometallurgical process at this temperature. However, in the case of [Hbet]Cl/4U/2.5GLY, NMR and mass spectrometric studies proved the degradation via several decomposition pathways at 60 °C already. These decomposition reactions change the composition of the DES, which also affects the solubility of metal oxides. The thermal and chemical stability of [Hbet][NTf2] and [Hbet]Cl/4U/2.5GLY, besides other factors, have direct implications for their consideration as green solvents. Thus, [Hbet][NTf2] should only be used at reaction temperatures below 150 °C. Furthermore, its industrial application might be impeded by the expensive and toxic [NTf2]– anion. While betaine-based solvents can be easily accessible due to the natural abundance of betaine, the synthesis effort of the [NTf2]– anion makes [Hbet][NTf2] a considerably expensive IL. [Hbet]Cl/4U/2.5GLY is cheaper and easier to be synthesized from naturally abundant substances, yet not a considerable option due to its decomposition at low temperature already. Its thermal and chemical instability pose hardly surmountable obstacles regarding the recycling and the toxicity of [Hbet]Cl/4U/2.5GLY. Thus, both [Hbet][NTf2] and [Hbet]Cl/4U/2.5GLY do not qualify as green solvents and more benign alternatives should be found in the future. Altogether, this thesis showed that the ionometallurgical production of metals from their oxides is possible and, moreover, could be a sustainable alternative to conventional processes. The presented investigations extend our understanding of metal oxide chemistry in ILs or DESs and provide proofs of concept, laying a foundation for further work that leaves numerous opportunities for ongoing exploration and optimization. Hence, ionometallurgy could be one step to face the urgent challenge of climate change

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This paper was published in Technische Universität Dresden: Qucosa.

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