The world accommodates huge portions of lithium, an integral ingredient in electrical automobile batteries. And although lithium is often mined from onerous rock, nearly all of the world’s lithium reserves are literally present in brine, extraordinarily salty water beneath the Earth’s floor.

Right now, brine mining entails evaporating the brine in huge, extravagantly coloured swimming pools over a sequence of about 18 months, leaving excessive concentrations of lithium behind. It is a easy however inefficient course of that takes up huge swaths of land and is ecologically disruptive.

As automakers world wide wrestle to fulfill terribly formidable electrical automobile manufacturing targets, there’s rising curiosity in doing issues in another way. 

The auto business requires a 20x improve in lithium provide, and there is simply no solution to obtain that sort of development with standard applied sciences,” mentioned Dave Snydacker, founder and CEO of Lilac Options.

Lilac is one in every of numerous firms piloting a set of latest and largely unproven applied sciences known as direct lithium extraction, or DLE, which may improve the effectivity and reduce the unfavorable externalities of the brine mining course of.

As a substitute of concentrating lithium by evaporating brine in massive swimming pools, DLE pulls the brine instantly right into a processing unit, places it by way of a sequence of chemical processes to separate the lithium, then injects it again underground. This course of produces battery-grade lithium carbonate or hydroxide in a matter of hours, with out the necessity to transport concentrated brine to a separate processing facility.

DLE may additionally assist jump-start the home lithium mining market. Right now, most lithium brine mining takes place within the Salar de Atacama, an expansive salt flat in northern Chile that accommodates the very best high quality lithium brine on this planet. However DLE applied sciences require a lot much less land and may help unlock assets in areas the place the brine accommodates much less lithium and extra impurities.

North American firms Lilac Options, EnergyX and Normal Lithium are exploring lithium assets in areas similar to Arkansas’ Smackover Formation, California’s Salton Sea and Utah’s Nice Salt Lake, in addition to overseas in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The Chilean authorities has even introduced that each one new lithium tasks shall be required to make use of DLE know-how.

“So the timing is true and ripe for this to see the sunshine of day very, very quickly,” mentioned Amit Patwardhan, CTO of EnergyX.

Direct lithium extraction firm EnergyX is constructing demonstration crops in Argentina, Chile, California, Utah and Arkansas.


Doing issues in another way

In a world earlier than electrical autos, conventional strategies of brine mining and onerous rock mining greater than sufficed to fulfill international lithium demand.

“The world did not want DLE for the final 50 years. Lithium’s major use was industrial — ceramics, glass and lubricants,” mentioned Robert Mintak, CEO of Normal Lithium.

However with demand for EVs and the lithium-ion batteries that energy them booming, now there is a provide crunch. 

During the last 10 years, 90% of latest lithium manufacturing has come from onerous rock tasks. However onerous rock tasks are more and more costly as we go into decrease grade assets. And in the event you add up all of the onerous rock tasks, there’s simply not sufficient useful resource on the market to fulfill automaker objectives. It is the brine assets which can be massive sufficient to affect the automobile business,” Snydacker mentioned.

DLE is already getting used to some extent in each Argentina and China, the place the businesses Livent and Sunresin are implementing industrial tech that mixes DLE with conventional evaporation pond operations.

These firms each depend on a know-how known as adsorption, the one commercially confirmed method to DLE. On this course of, lithium molecules within the brine adhere to an adsorbant substance, eradicating them from surrounding impurities. However specialists say that stripping the lithium from the adsorbents requires plenty of contemporary water, an enormous downside contemplating lots of the world’s finest brine assets are in arid areas.

Livent’s most up-to-date sustainability report signifies that it makes use of 71.4 metric tons of contemporary water per metric ton of lithium carbonate equal, or LCE, produced. Lilac reported that in pilot testing it makes use of between 10 and 20 metric tons of contemporary water, whereas EnergyX says it makes use of lower than 20 metric tons.

China-based Sunresin says that it recycles all of its contemporary water, and that its newer tasks will function with out evaporation ponds.

However a bunch of different firms are actually moving into the business, testing out different applied sciences which they declare won’t solely get rid of evaporation ponds altogether, however improve yields whereas reducing power and contemporary water necessities.

New gamers

Bay Space-based Lilac Options is utilizing a know-how known as ion trade. It is at present piloting its tech in Argentina in partnership with Australian lithium firm Lake Sources.

“With the Lilac ion-exchange bead we have developed a ceramic materials. This ceramic selectively absorbs lithium from the brine whereas releasing a proton. As soon as the lithium is absorbed into the fabric, we then flush the lithium out of the bead utilizing dilute acid and that produces a lithium chloride focus which will be simply processed into battery grade chemical compounds,” Snydacker defined.

Lilac Options is creating a direct lithium extraction facility in Argentina in partnership with Australian lithium firm Lake Sources.

Lilac Options

Lilac expects to have its first commercial-scale module working earlier than the tip of 2024. The corporate is backed by BMW and the Invoice Gates-funded Breakthrough Power Ventures, and Ford has signed a nonbinding settlement to purchase lithium from its Argentina plant.

EnergyX, which relies out of each San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Austin, Texas, makes use of a mixture of applied sciences that it will possibly tailor to the particular brine useful resource. The 1st step is conventional adsorption, adopted by a way referred to as “solvent extraction,” by which the concentrated brine is combined with an natural liquid. The lithium is then transferred to the natural earlier than it is stripped free and concentrated. Membrane filtration is the ultimate stage, which removes all remaining impurities.

“So that you see these all these loops and synergies that come out of mixing these applied sciences. And that’s one other massive differentiator in what EnergyX does and what actually drives the price of the know-how a lot decrease in comparison with anyone else,” mentioned Patwardhan.

EnergyX is constructing demonstration crops with undisclosed companions in Argentina, Arkansas, Chile, California and Utah, and is aiming to have the primary two up and operating by the tip of this 12 months. Not too long ago, the corporate secured $50 million in funding from GM to assist scale its tech.

Vancouver-based Normal Lithium additionally has massive backers. The general public firm’s largest investor is Koch Industries, and it has been operating an indication plant in South Arkansas for the final three years, producing lithium at a preexisting bromine plant.

The corporate makes use of each ion-exchange and adsorption applied sciences, relying on the useful resource. It expects to start building on a commercial-scale DLE facility subsequent 12 months and is increasing into Texas as nicely.

“We have now a chance as we broaden from Arkansas to Texas to be the biggest producing space for lithium chemical compounds in North America, using in an space that is not underneath water stress, that has a social license to function,” mentioned Mintak.

Corporations similar to Normal Lithium, that are leaning into the U.S. market, stand to learn from the Inflation Discount Act, which ties electrical automobile subsidies to home sourcing of battery supplies. Automakers also can obtain the complete EV credit score in the event that they supply from nations which have free commerce agreements with the U.S., similar to Chile.

Whereas Chile has introduced that each one new lithium tasks within the nation shall be required to make use of DLE applied sciences, it has not introduced what firms it will likely be partnering with for these new tasks.

Neighboring Bolivia  can be seeking to make the most of direct lithium extraction to assist unlock the nation’s huge, however largely undeveloped, lithium assets. The federal government has tapped a consortium of Chinese language firms, led by battery big CATL, to spearhead DLE efforts in its salt flats, and is contemplating a future partnership with Lilac as nicely.

Most new lithium provide will proceed to return from onerous rock tasks for the remainder of this decade, Snydacker mentioned. “However by the tip of this decade, we’ll see very large-scale brine tasks coming on-line …” he predicted. “And going out into the subsequent decade, this know-how will present a majority of latest provide.”

Total, lithium manufacturing from DLE is projected to develop from about 54,000 metric tons immediately to 647,500 metric tons by 2032, based on Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. That is forecast to be value about $21.6 billion.

“However once we place it in relative phrases in opposition to the remainder of the worldwide market, that solely represents round 15% of complete provide,” mentioned James Mills, principal marketing consultant at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. “So we’re nonetheless going to must depend on conventional types of manufacturing for the lithium models, whether or not it is evaporation ponds or onerous rock mining.”

Correction: Lilac Options remains to be being thought of for a future partnership with the Bolivian authorities for direct lithium extraction. An earlier model of this story did not mirror that chance.

Watch the video to study extra in regards to the firms seeking to carry direct lithium extraction into the mainstream.