Project title: Thermodynamic properties of aqueous transition metal sulfate solutions of industrial importance
Academic partner: University of Oulu
Principal investigator: Professor Ulla Lassi
Postdoc researcher: Tuomas Vielma
Industry partner: Boliden Kokkola
Scientists from the University of Oulu are working closely with Boliden Kokkola to produce new fundamental knowledge about metal sulfates, for which there is huge need both in research and industry.
Lithium-ion batteries are used to power everything from mobile phones to electric cars. The metal sulfates used in making these batteries are therefore in huge demand. Although Finland has strong traditions in the manufacture of basic metals, the properties and behaviour of metal sulfates in water are still poorly understood. “As long as we lack this fundamental understanding, it’s difficult to theoretically predict what might happen in certain processes,” says Professor Ulla Lassi, head of the Research Unit of Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Oulu.
Lassi and her team have developed equipment that can help fill in these gaps in knowledge. They are particularly interested in zinc and transition metals such as copper and nickel. Joining forces with Europe’s second-largest zinc producers Boliden Kokkola, the team are now working to develop a thermodynamic computation model that can be used to assess the behaviour of aqueous transition metal sulfate solutions in different conditions. The idea is to create a model that is applicable to different metal sulfates and that will serve different industries.
New knowledge can reshape the entire research field
The new knowledge and understanding brought about by the model may ultimately help to improve metal manufacturing processes and reduce costs and environmental burdens. “A better understanding about key properties will make it possible to reduce temperatures at certain stages of the process, to reduce loss in production and to make better use of manufacturing by-products,” Lassi says.
Boliden Kokkola have for years been working to upgrade the materials and energy efficiency of their production processes, and collaboration with the University of Oulu promises to yield even greater efficiency. At the same time, this collaboration will generate new knowledge that has application even outside the company. All the information produced will be open-access.
Lassi believes that the field of aqueous chemistry is undergoing a major generational shift. Tuomas Vielma, the postdoc researcher on Lassi’s team, owes his expertise in thermodynamic modelling and computation to leading Australian gurus in the field, who are now in their seventies and eighties. This used to be an important line of research in Finland, and Lassi hopes that the work underway at the University of Oulu will provide a new boost to this research direction. “The information we are producing will benefit a very large number of scientists. There’s a real need for it.”
Close contacts and exchange are essential for good cooperation
Boliden Kokkola and the University of Oulu team are working very closely together. They have at least weekly contact, and from the outset the partners have regularly exchanged views on how to further strengthen and improve their collaboration.
The project supervisor on the business side, Justin Salminen has a PhD himself. This makes it easier to find a common language. Another important asset, Lassi continues, lies in Tuomas Vielma’s excellent communications skills and his ability to talk with businesses. “Finnish companies want to work with universities so long as we don’t speak too theoretically.”
The team’s collaboration with Boliden Kokkola started in January 2021 and already they have produced publishable results. Given the high demand for new knowledge, all articles published in the project have much novelty value. Lassi has far-ranging expectations for future collaboration as well: “Once this project is completed we have two or three new projects in the pipeline that we’ll start working on together.”