Direct lithium extraction technologies may be the answer to more lithium and less environmental impact
The demand for lithium continues to increase. It is expected that by 2025, this need will even triple. A very promising future for a segment that keeps drawing attention from venture capitalists; so far, USD$ 2.5 billion has been injected through companies worldwide with an average age of 8 years, according to Pitchbook.
Much of this enthusiasm is due to advances in lithium extraction technology. Extracting the metal has traditionally been characterised as slow and environmentally risky. However, emerging extraction technologies are beginning to gain traction and break new ground in lithium-dependent markets such as the electric vehicle industry.
Let's understand more about the ongoing scenario of this silver metal and how it can unlock new potential for industries such as mobility and computing.
Which country is rich in lithium?
Today, the largest lithium reserve is found in Chile. The country has in its hands a valuable asset to the revolution underway in the e-mobility sector.
Just to summarise, lithium is a raw material that is so vital for e-vehicles to run, that some Tesla models contain 40 kilos of it in their battery packs. It's a good measuring stick when compared to other products from different supply chains, such as laptop (30 grams) and smartphone (3 grams) batteries.
And batteries are something that we can never dissociate from the lithium discussion as it is by far the biggest motivation for extracting this silver metal. According to data from the US Geological Survey, lithium-ion batteries correspond to 74% of the end-use of lithium.
Despite its large reserves, Chile is not the largest producer of lithium-ion batteries. This status belongs to China which is far ahead compared to other countries.
As investments have grown, new technologies have appeared and the percentage of lithium extracted has been much higher in the past.
We're witnessing an increased demand effect that sets off a chain reaction across this entire ecosystem; thus, new reserves can be explored and more metals extracted with less environmental aggression.
Therefore, we can see a consequent drop in lithium prices so far, and the forecasts for 2030 remain encouraging.
The problems with conventional lithium extraction process
Using Chile again as an example, the method used by the country in the Salar of Atacama is the traditional brine extraction. The process occurs by pumping lithium-rich brine to the surface, forming a series of evaporation ponds. Through the heat, the water evaporates, leaving a high concentration of lithium and other metals such as magnesium.
The evaporation process usually takes 18 months, which is very time-consuming. And not to mention the water footprint that can affect local communities.
Another means of extraction that can pose environmental risk is the one related to ore mining. Companies need heavy machinery to extract lithium from hard rocks beneath the surface in this method. This, again, can result in water wastage and cause disturbances in the local ecology.
But a new form of extraction has come to the vanguard recently and could change the game for lithium production.
What is DLE technology?
Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) is a new technology developed by emerging companies and has different means and applications (so it is more correct to refer to them as technologies, in the plural).
In a nutshell, DLE is faster and has a much lower environmental impact. These technologies can allow lithium to be extracted from brine water using techniques such as nanofiltration.
The big challenge now is making direct lithium extraction technology a commercially scalable solution.
Source: Frame Stock Footage/Shutterstock
As we approach the goals established by the Paris Agreement, several companies are embracing the challenge and approaching new, more sustainable solutions.
Lithium is an essential raw material in the energy transition, so its extraction needs to be as efficient and eco-friendly as possible. Check out the main companies recently drawing the market's attention with their technologies.
Some names like Lilac Solutions and EnergyX are among the most popular companies in the field due to their technologies to optimise the lithium extraction process.
Another well-known is Standard Lithium, a Canada-based company recognised for its focus on exploring and developing the Arkansas Lithium Project, in the southern-central region of Arkansas.
The vast majority of these organisations received these funds in 2021. The only exceptions were Rincon (2022), EnergyX (2022), and LiTHIUM X (2018).
The future of lithium
We have seen so far that investments should continue to increase and the price of lithium will continue to decrease.
There is great potential in direct extraction technologies, and even in combining them with other ways of mining the silver metal.
Source: Frame Stock Footage/Shutterstock
There are still expectations when new reserves are being explored. In the United States, beyond the California-Mexico border, is the Salton Sea. This increasingly shrinking lake hides a reserve of lithium capable of supplying all projects' demand in the country and up to 40% of the world.
Controlled Thermal Resources is one of the leading companies exploring the area, which stands among the largest geothermal energy fields globally.
And in another horizon, South America will continue to have a vital role in the coming years. Argentina-Chile-Bolivia, the famous "lithium triangle", has 67% of the world's lithium reserves (we can also include Peru in this percentage).
Undoubtedly, the electric vehicle market will be directly linked with the advances we will see in lithium extraction technology soon.
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This post was written by: Raphael Santos, Content Marketing Coordinator