As we discussed last week, the increase in demand for Electric Vehicles is driving a sharp increase in demand for the materials found in the batteries of EVs.  Lithium and other precious metals are difficult to harvest, and the process often results in severe damage to local environments. The majority of the world’s lithium reserves are found in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Australia.  This means that the future of transportation supply will depend on successful diplomatic relations with these countries, and that auto manufacturers will need to be able to maximize the use of finite global lithium supplies. Effective energy storage is absolutely vital to a low carbon future, and new methods for lithium extraction are desperately needed.

Current Methods

The majority of the world’s lithium (approximately 87%) is found in briny underground ponds (called salars).  The salt water from the salars is pumped to the surface and deposited into a series of massive ponds where solar evaporation occurs.  This evaporation process can take anywhere from 8 months to 3 years with an average of 18 months. After the water has evaporated, and other minerals have precipitated out, the remaining lithium enriched solution is transferred to a plant where additional unwanted elements are filtered from the solution.  It is then chemically treated with sodium carbonate to create the final product of lithium carbonate, or further refinery to lithium hydroxide. Producers often have a more direct and negative effect on local environments. The process of pumping water to the surface and allowing it to dry means that potentially potable water sources are wasted, often in areas where water is scarce.  The process is also terribly inefficient, leaving much of the precious material unharvested. Lithium recovery rates are only 30-50%.

The other, less common method for obtaining lithium comes from a process known as hard rock extraction.  While significantly more consistent in its ability to deliver the product (the process of hard rock extraction is not subject to precise weather conditions as the water extraction method is), its environmental effects can be much more detrimental.  Giant deposits of lithium measuring anywhere from a few to hundreds of meters of the substance can be found all over the world, including here in the United States. These deposits are extracted using traditional open pit mining techniques including drilling.  The caustic mixture of chemicals used to extract lithium from the ground can find its way into nearby water supplies, making the water undrinkable and killing wildlife. In 2016, the Liqi River in Tibet became contaminated after a Chinese mining operation dumped hazardous chemicals in the river.  This resulted in the death of thousands of fish and many cattle and yak. As this tragedy makes clear: there is a need to develop new and more environmentally friendly methods for lithium extraction in order to meet rising global demands.

How much do we need?

It is estimated that by the year 2025, annual lithium demand will rise to nearly five times its current levels.  Albemarle, the top lithium producer in the world, forecasts global demand with a range as high as 1.3 million metric tons of LCE (lithium carbonate equivalent) by 2025.  In addition to the increase of demand being caused by rising interest and EVs, utility companies are beginning to create grid storage powered by renewable solar and/or wind into play as viable alternatives to traditional production methods.  These enormous batteries demand large amounts of lithium for their production, further driving prices north. Utility companies Florida Power & Light (FPL) and Hawaiian Electric (HECO) have recently invested in large-scale solar/storage projects, and more utilities plan to follow suit.  FPL has also announced that it plans to build what it says will be the largest solar-powered battery system in the world, which is scheduled to begin operation in 2021. Times are changing and corporations are now realizing that they too must change their ways if they are to remain competitive and solvent.

Finding Solutions

So what can we do to not only meet global demands for lithium but also protect our environment in the process?  A young American company operating out of Austin, Texas and San Francisco, California may have found the solution.  Founded in 2018, Energy Exploration Technologies, Inc. has made incredible breakthroughs in lithium extraction and recovery technology.  The sustainable energy company has a mission to fundamentally change the way we power our world with clean energy and sustainable technology solutions.  “All the lithium production companies understand they absolutely need new, disruptive technology to more efficiently produce lithium,” according to Teague Egan, CEO of EnergyX. “This industry is use to seeing a high of 20% annual demand increases, and all of a sudden we have an estimated 500% demand increase over the next handful of years.  A step change is needed. New methods of lithium extraction and production technology is the only way to fulfill this oncoming demand.”

By applying synthetic ion separation techniques to the lithium extraction process, EnergyX is able to triple the recovery rate of the element while also speeding up extraction time to a matter of days versus years.  EnergyX accomplishes this using their patented LiTAS (Lithium Ion Transport and Separation) membrane nanotechnology. The membranes are capable of selectively separating targeted ions in the brine solution at extremely high salinities.  This kind of targeted ion selectivity has never been accomplished until now. In addition to being more environmentally friendly, this technology drives down extraction costs compared to the traditional methods of brine and hard rock mining.

LiTAS technology stems from metal organic frameworks (MOF) nanoparticles capable of selectively separating monovalent ions, such as lithium, from the rest of the ions in mixtures in high salinity solutions while maintaining stability in a myriad of conditions.  No other technology has ever been able to do this. It is a very exciting breakthrough for the whole membrane community at large, with an even broader range of possible applications yet to be explored. LiTAS is the synthesis and characterization of mixed matrix membranes comprising mixtures of polymer and MOF to retain the attractive selectivity of the MOF and the scalable and robust mechanical properties of polymers.  

“Our goal is to develop rapid, low-cost, lithium extraction and separation membranes with high recovery rates and minimal environmental impact,” explained Egan in a recent interview with Forbes. “This, in turn, will dramatically improve output, as well as production economics for existing producers, and their customers beyond that.” 

All of this sounds very exciting and we wish EnergyX the best of luck in the future.

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