Lithium is a critical raw material for making batteries. And this is not likely to change anytime soon, as discussed here, for example. Currently, much of the world’s lithium is extracted from brine in salt deserts. Such salt deserts include the Atacama Desert in Chile, for example. Traditionally, lithium extraction from brine first pumps the brine up to the surface, and then concentrates it via evaporation.
But this evaporation-based lithium extraction is bad for the environment. For example, evidence suggests that lithium mining can offset the balance of local water ecosystems. Another problem is that the evaporation process is very slow. “Very slow” means that it takes months or years.
Because we need more and more batteries — for electric vehicles, grid storage, etc. — we need more and more lithium. And because we need more lithium, we need faster and more environmentally friendly technologies for lithium extraction.
I used Mergeflow’s tech discovery software to find such new technologies. My goal was to find technologies that could not just make the traditional evaporation based methods a little better. I wanted to find technologies that could replace the traditional approaches altogether.
When you read the following, please keep in mind that I am no expert on lithium extraction technologies. And I spent less than an hour on my search (writing the article took longer).
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Here are some of the things I found:
Lilac Solutions has developed and patented a new ion exchange method for lithium extraction. This new method aims to replace the environmentally harmful and slow evaporation-based lithium extraction process. Among others, their technology is being deployed in projects in California and in Nevada.
Standard Lithium and Lanxess
In 2018, Standard Lithium and Lanxess announced their collaboration on a new direct lithium extraction method. Since then, Lanxess have invested in their production of ion exchange resins. These resins are used for lithium extraction, but also for other liquid purification applications.
Standard Lithium and Lanxess have built their lithium extraction pilot plant at an existing Lanxess facility in Arkansas. And in September 2020, they announced the first large shipment of lithium chloride produced at the plant.
Pure Energy Minerals
Pure Energy Minerals provides a new technology for lithium extraction. They position their technology as an alternative to traditional evaporation-based methods. Together with Tenova Advanced Technologies, they operate a pilot facility in Nevada.
Extracting lithium in geothermal plants
The Upper Rhine Trench in Germany is an important area for geothermal energy generation (see this link for more details). Now, two scientists from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Florencia Saravia and Jens Grimmer, have developed a new process that could extract lithium in geothermal plants in this region.
Similar efforts are underway in Cornwall (UK). Geothermal Engineering and Cornish Lithium are developing new direct lithium extraction methods, to extract lithium from geothermal waters in Cornwall. The work is funded by the UK Government. Cornish Lithium also participates in another R&D project. This project aims to detect lithium resources underground via satellite imaging.