Lithium is a key component for rechargeable batteries. The development of lithium extraction technologies is seen as an important step in the US push for the transition to alternative energy sources. In February, the Biden administration unveiled $ 2.9 billion in investment plans to increase battery production.
But new, still experimental methods for producing and extracting lithium that could help increase supply while attracting new investors because of their potential have not yet been proven.
Current methods of lithium production are mainly the extraction of metal from rock or the pumping of saline brines containing lithium from the ground under huge lakes. Chilean mining companies have been using this environmentally hazardous practice for decades. It takes 18 months to two years to produce lithium from brine using lakes and several years to build such a project.
New methods, known as direct lithium extraction, have been shown to be faster than traditional methods and more efficient. While traditional methods extract about 40% to 50% of lithium, new methods can extract from 75% to 90%, say the companies behind the technology.
This means that more lithium can be produced, which makes commercial access faster. Analysts predict a shortage of lithium, which could drastically slow down the production of electric cars.
Study in Nevada
In Nevada, where the land is rich in lithium brine, a huge number of lithium miners have filed lawsuits for potential projects in the past year. However, many conventional lithium extraction efforts are controversial.
The question is whether DLE technology is ready to make a big change. Many DLE technologies that work well in laboratories often have problems outside of them, experts say. Many of them still require large amounts of water and energy to operate on a large scale.
Problems with technology
Albemarle Corp. ALB in North Carolina, the world’s largest lithium producer, has evaluated a number of DLE methods and said it is looking at the most promising candidates for lithium resource extraction as partners. Glenn Merfeld, chief technology officer, says there is potential to increase lithium production with DLE technology, but a number of factors require consideration, such as the cost of the project and sustainability issues.
A big problem remains that the technology does not filter salt and some other impurities in the brines, which means that other methods – such as lakes – are still needed to purify lithium, according to people familiar with the technology.
Currently, DLE technology is commercially used only by Philadelphia-based Livent Corp. LTHM. The DLE component of the Livent project in Argentina is small and does not produce lithium on a scale that would show a technological breakthrough, analysts say.
Mr Silacker of Lilac says his company has run a successful large-scale program. The company says it will use the $ 150 million it has been raising since last October to increase production, expand its workforce and deploy its technology.
EnergyX, a private company based in Austin, Texas that seeks to produce lithium using membranes in the DLE extraction process, says the company’s method can currently extract up to 90 percent of the lithium in brine. The company has raised $ 20 million from investors, including the University of Texas.
EnergyX CEO Teagan Egan told reporters that his company’s technology will work with existing production methods such as lakes, but that future technologies will not need them. Currently, the company is trying to raise more money from investors, say those familiar with its plans.
Dealer Anatoliy Pavlov