The world contains huge amounts of lithium, an integral part of batteries for electric vehicles. And while lithium is mostly extracted from hard rock, most of the world’s lithium reserves are found in brine, extremely salty water beneath the Earth’s surface.
Today, brine extraction involves evaporating the brine in huge, extravagantly colored pools over a series of about 18 months, leaving behind high concentrations of lithium. It is a simple but inefficient process that takes up huge tracts of land and is ecologically disruptive.
As automakers around the world struggle to meet extraordinarily ambitious electric vehicle production targets, interest in doing things differently is growing.
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“The auto industry needs a 20x larger supply of lithium, and there’s just no way to achieve that kind of growth with conventional technologies,” said Dave Snydacker, founder and CEO of Lilac Solutions.
Lilac is one of several companies trialling a range of new and largely unproven technologies called direct lithium extraction, or DLE, that could increase efficiency and reduce the negative externalities of the brine extraction process.
Instead of concentrating lithium by evaporating brine in large pools, DLE draws the brine directly into a processing unit, goes through a series of chemical processes to separate the lithium, and then injects it back underground. This process produces battery-grade lithium carbonate or hydroxide in hours, without the need to transport concentrated brine to a separate processing facility.
DLE could also help jump-start the domestic lithium mining market. Today, most lithium brine mining takes place in the Salar de Atacama, a vast salt flat in northern Chile that contains the highest quality lithium brine in the world. But DLE technologies require much less land and can help unlock resources in areas where the brine contains less lithium and more impurities.
North American companies Lilac Solutions, EnergyX and Standard Lithium are exploring lithium sources in areas such as the Smackover Formation in Arkansas, the Salton Sea in California and the Great Salt Lake in Utah, as well as abroad in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The Chilean government has even announced that all new lithium projects must use DLE technology.
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“So the timing is right and ripe to see the light of day very, very soon,” said Amit Patwardhan, CTO of EnergyX.
Direct lithium extraction company EnergyX is building demonstration plants in Argentina, Chile, California, Utah and Arkansas.
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Do things differently
In a world without electric vehicles, traditional methods of brining and hard rock mining were more than enough to meet the global demand for lithium.
“The world has not needed a DLE for the last 50 years. The primary use of lithium has been industrial – ceramics, glass and lubricants,” said Robert Mintak, CEO of Standard Lithium.
But with demand for electric cars and the lithium-ion batteries that power them booming, there is now a supply crisis.
“In the last 10 years, 90% of new lithium production has come from hard rock projects. But hard rock projects are getting more and more expensive as we use lower quality raw materials. And when you add up all the hard rock projects, there just isn’t enough resources out there to goals of automakers. It’s the brine resources that are large enough to electrify the auto industry,” Snydacker said.
DLE is already being used to some extent in both Argentina and China, where companies Livent and Sunresin are implementing commercial technology that combines DLE with traditional evaporation ponds.
These companies both rely on a technology called adsorption, which is the only commercially proven approach to DLE. In this process, lithium molecules in the brine attach to an adsorbent substance, removing them from surrounding impurities. But experts say stripping the lithium from the adsorbents requires a lot of fresh water, a big deal since many of the world’s best brine sources are located in arid regions.
Livent’s most recent sustainability report indicates that it uses 71.4 tons of fresh water per ton of lithium carbonate equivalent, or LCE, produced. Lilac reported using between 10 and 20 tons of fresh water in pilot testing, while EnergyX says it uses less than 20 tons.
China-based Sunresin says it recycles all of its freshwater and its newer projects will work without evaporation ponds.
But a host of other companies are now entering the industry and testing alternative technologies that they claim will not only completely eliminate evaporation ponds, but also increase yields while lowering energy and freshwater needs.
Bay Area-based Lilac Solutions uses a technology called ion exchange. It is currently testing its technology in Argentina in partnership with Australian lithium company Lake Resources.
“With the Lilac ion exchange bead, we have developed a ceramic material. This ceramic selectively absorbs lithium from the brine while releasing a proton. Once the lithium is incorporated into the material, we rinse the lithium from the bead with dilute acid, which produces a lithium chloride concentrate that can be easily processed into battery chemicals,” Snydacker explained.
Lilac Solutions is developing a direct lithium extraction facility in Argentina in partnership with Australian lithium company Lake Resources.
Lilac expects to have its first commercial-scale module up and running before the end of 2024. The company is backed by BMW and Bill Gates-funded Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Ford has signed a non-binding agreement to buy lithium from its plant in Argentina.
Based in both San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Austin, Texas, EnergyX uses a combination of technologies that it can tailor to the specific brine source. Step one is traditional adsorption followed by a method known as “solvent extraction” where the concentrated brine is mixed with an organic liquid. The lithium is then transferred to the organic before being stripped and concentrated. Membrane filtration is the final stage, which removes all remaining impurities.
“So you see all these loops and synergies that come from combining these technologies. And that’s another big differentiator in what EnergyX does and what really makes the cost of the technology much lower than anybody else,” said Patwardhan.
EnergyX is building demonstration plants with undisclosed partners in Argentina, Arkansas, Chile, California and Utah, and aims to have the first two up and running by the end of this year. The company recently raised $50 million in funding from GM to help scale its technology.
Vancouver-based Standard Lithium also has major backers. The publicly traded company’s largest investor is Koch Industries, and it has been running a demonstration plant in South Arkansas for three years, producing lithium in an already existing bromine plant.
The company uses both ion exchange and adsorption technologies, depending on the source. It expects to begin construction of a commercial-scale DLE facility next year and is also expanding into Texas.
“We have an opportunity as we expand from Arkansas to Texas to become the largest lithium chemical producing area in North America, leveraging an area that is not under water stress and has a social permit to operate,” said Mintak.
Companies like Standard Lithium, which target the U.S. market, will benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act, which links electric vehicle subsidies to domestic sourcing of battery materials. Automakers can also receive the full EV credit if they source from countries that have free trade agreements with the US, such as Chile.
While Chile has announced that all new lithium projects in the country must use DLE technologies, it has not announced which companies it will partner with on these new projects.
Neighboring Bolivia is also looking to direct lithium extraction to help unlock the country’s vast but largely untapped lithium resources. The government has brought in a consortium of Chinese companies led by battery giant CATL to lead DLE efforts in its salt flats, and is also considering a future partnership with Lilac.
Most of the new lithium supply will continue to come from hard rock projects for the rest of this decade, Snydacker said. “But by the end of this decade, we’re going to see very large-scale brine projects coming online…” he predicted. “And as we move into the next decade, this technology will drive the majority of new offerings.”
Overall, DLE’s lithium production is expected to grow from about 54,000 tons today to 647,500 tons in 2032, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. That is expected to be worth about $21.6 billion.
“But when compared to the rest of the global market in relative terms, that represents only about 15% of the total supply,” said James Mills, principal advisor at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. “So we will still have to rely on traditional forms of production for the lithium units, be it evaporation ponds or bluestone mining.”
Correction: Lilac Solutions is still being considered for a future partnership with the Bolivian government for direct lithium extraction. An earlier version of this story did not reflect that possibility.
Watch the video to learn more about the companies looking to make direct lithium extraction mainstream.
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