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New lithium technology can help the world go green -- if it works

  • Published
    11th Apr, 2022
Context

Global automakers, mining companies and investors are pouring millions of dollars into direct lithium extraction companies, betting they can supply the bulk of the lithium needed to power the electric vehicle revolution.

About

About New Technology:

  • Miners will be able to boost global lithium production with a footprint far smaller than open-pit mines and evaporation ponds, which often are the size of multiple football fields and unpopular with local communities.
  • These so-called direct lithium extraction (DLE) technologies extract the white metal from brine using filters, membranes, ceramic beads or other equipment that can typically be housed in a small warehouse.
  • But they often use lots of potable water and electricity, and none have worked at commercial scale.
  • DLE technologies would challenge traditional miners such as Albemarle Corp, the world's largest lithium producer, and prospective miners such as Lithium Americas Corp, ioneer Ltd and Piedmont Lithium Inc.

Direct Lithium Extraction Process:

  • Direct Lithium Extraction uses a process that involves a highly selective absorbent to extract lithium from brine water.
  • The solution extracted from the brine water is then polished of impurities to yield high-grade Lithium Carbonate and Lithium Hydroxide.
  • What makes Direct Lithium Extraction different from other methods is that it rejects critical impurities, yielding a higher quality product.

The key advantages include:

  • Faster lithium production (takes a matter of hours/days rather than 1 year via evaporation ponds).
  • Much smaller environmental footprint as no need for a huge area of evaporation ponds, hence a more favorable ESG profile.
  • Not weather dependent.
  • Lower water consumption (the brine is returned to the salar after the lithium is extracted).
  • Potential to make low grade lithium projects economically viable.
  • Up to 99% lithium recovery (usually 70-90%) compared to ~40% with the conventional process.
  • Can potentially produce a higher purity battery grade lithium final product that sells at a premium to lower grade.

The key disadvantages include:

  • Not yet tested at a large scale and over a long time period. This means that the economics and effectiveness over time are still to be determined.
  • Technical complexity - Several choices in the type of DLE that can be used and risks involved with newer technology.
  • Initial CapEx may be higher and ongoing CapEx may be higher, depending upon the project. This depends on many factors (location, type of DLE process, cost of energy, any valuable by-products, geothermal benefits etc).
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