Lithium is the ‘driving’ force behind electric vehicles, but the industry is unable to keep pace with demand. In February 2022, the Biden administration announced plans to invest $2.9 billion to strengthen the battery supply chain and the production of advanced batteries. Direct lithium extraction is a new technology with the promise to unlock vast quantities found in natural brines in the United States.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, new lithium extraction technologies are attracting attention as these “methods “could help increase supplies, while attracting investors for their potential to speed up production and reduce the environmental impact compared with most current lithium-extraction methods, but none are, so far, proven at commercial scale.”
How is Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) defined?
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) states: “DLE technologies can be broadly grouped into three main categories: absorption using porous materials that enable lithium bonding, ion exchange, and solvent extraction.
Scaling up any of these techniques to full production capability remains a challenging task. For example, developing a solid material that bonds with just lithium is a huge challenge in geothermal brine that contains many minerals and metals at high temperatures and pressures. Successful DLE implementation will depend on expanding innovation and creating new technologies.”
“It’s such a game changer. There are huge opportunities,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told an energy conference in April 2022 about DLE.
In March 2022, One World Lithium announced the signing a licensing agreement with the US Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory division for a patent developed by the NETL for selectively recovering lithium from solutions of mixed metallic ions.
The DOE patent is an advanced direct lithium extraction (DLE) process for the extraction of lithium from natural brines, rapidly generating a pure lithium carbonate. The method uses unique carbon dioxide injection mixing techniques to quantitatively precipitate lithium carbonate from brines. This process requires no solvent, electrodes, membranes, or sorbents, but only uses carbon dioxide which can be sourced from industrial sources, waste or exhaust gas streams or, even, ambient air. It significantly reduces capital and operating costs, process time, energy requirements, and, paradoxically, overall carbon dioxide emissions.
The process can be fully deployable and operational at the brine source, eliminating the need to evaporate the brines and/or transport brine concentrates to a chemical processing facility to form and purify lithium carbonate. Deployment of this technology will reduce dependence on foreign lithium sources.
Many DLE Technologies Tap Significant Water Supplies
A major automobile manufacturer is relying on DLE technology to supply a lithium from the Salton Sea region of California. which purportedly “uses 10 tonnes of water for every tonne of lithium produced.”
By way of background,most of thelithium extraction processes use a lot of water —approximately 500,000 gallons per metric ton of lithium produced. Mining can consume the majority of a region’s fresh water, which negatively impacts the community and reduces the number of locations that are feasible. Lithium extraction technologies also have the potential for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools, or membrane filters, into the water supply. This includes hydrochloric acid, which may be created in the processing of lithium, and waste products that are filtered out of the brine.
While current extraction methods yield about 40% to 50% of the lithium present in a mined or brine resource, processes using DLE can extract 75% to 90%.
As The Wall Street Journal reported “many DLE technologies that work well in the laboratory often run into trouble in the field. Many of the technologies would likely still require large amounts of water and power to run the devices on a large scale.”
One World Lithium Inc.’s license agreement with the US Department of Energy and its National Energy Technology Laboratories (NETL) is focused on profitably separating high-purity lithium carbonate from a brine. The DOE patent is an advanced direct lithium extraction (DLE) process for the extraction of lithium from natural brines, rapidly generating a pure lithium carbonate. The method uses a unique multi-step high pressure/temperature application of carbon dioxide injection-mixing to ultimately directly and selectively precipitate lithium carbonate from brines. One World’s DLE technology competes favorably vs. competitors as:
- The process requires no solvent, electrodes, membrane, or sorbents and only uses carbon dioxide which can be sourced commercially or from industrial waste streams or ambient air.
- It significantly reduces capital and operation costs, process time, energy requirements, and, paradoxically, overall carbon dioxide emissions.
- The process can be fully operational at the brine source, eliminating transportation of brine derived solids to a chemical processing facility to form pure lithium carbonate. Deployment of this technology will reduce dependence on foreign lithium sources.
The stakes are high for DLE to be successful. The US Energy Department reports that at least 70% of U.S. lithium deposits are held in brine reserves. DLE could produce lithium in areas where open-pit mines face strong opposition. If a successful DLE technology is created, miners will increase global lithium production with a footprint significantly smaller than evaporation ponds or open-pit mines.