Yes, There Will Be Plenty Of Lithium For Energy Storage
Energy Storage And Lithium
For those of you new to the topic, lithium-ion technology is the gold standard for energy storage today. A more diverse field of options is beginning to emerge, but for now lithium is powering everything from smart phones and electric vehicles, on up to utility-scale batteries for grid use.
Though the reserves are mostly concentrated in just a few countries, lithium is relatively abundant. The primary source is salt brine, and the conventional extraction process is based on evaporation.
Last week, Lilac Solutions was among three startups selected for investment by the non-profit organization PRIME Coalition, which focuses on a high tech approach to manage climate change.
The company’s new technology addresses a couple of key issues involved in conventional lithium extraction. Lilac describes the problem in a nutshell:
…The conventional process for extracting lithium from brines requires large evaporation ponds that are vulnerable to weather, large quantities of chemical inputs, and long periods of time for construction and processing. This conventional process also suffers from low lithium recovery and cannot access new lithium resources in the US and around the world…
Got all that? Lilac has developed a modular technology that can be scaled up (or down, presumably) in reaction to market trends.
The key to Lilac’s technology is ion exchange. Lilac has identified a group of high performance materials that can absorb and release lithium from brine quickly and in high concentration, while requiring less water than conventional methods.
In contrast to a months-long wait involve in conventional brine evaporation, the Lilac process takes a matter of hours.
Lilac also makes the point that its materials can function efficiently with brine sources that conventional extraction methods can’t access, due to the presence of calcium, magnesium and other interfering substances.
In addition, Lilac anticipates that its technology can be used on low-concentration brines that would otherwise be uneconomical to process.
US DOE Also Hearts Lilac
The PRIME investment follows a “highly competitive” award of $150,000 Lilac received from the US Department of Energy last year under its Small Business Research (SBIR) grant program.
Lithium actually has a variety of uses other than energy storage, but Lilac focused squarely on the battery angle (break added for readability) in its grant application:
Electric vehicles are creating unprecedented demand for lithium. Most lithium is produced from brine resources. Conventional methods for extracting lithium from brines suffer from low lithium recovery and cannot access the expanded resources needed for mass adoption of electric vehicles.
The Department of Energy has supported a great variety of projects related to battery R&D, manufacturing, and deployment, and many of these projects rely on a secure and sustainable supply of lithium.
Energy Storage And Environmental Impact
If Lilac’s technology is beginning to sound like a more environmentally friendly way to ramp up the energy storage supply chain, that’s no accident.
Founder David Snydacker was doing energy storage research as a PhD student at Northwestern University when he began focusing on ways to avoid the impacts of conventional lithium production.
Here’s Northwestern’s take on the project:
Lilac Solutions plans to pump brine directly from a brine reservoir into a tank filled with materials specialized for ion exchange. When the brine filters through the material, it releases lithium to be collected. The remaining salt waste will be drained directly back into the brine reservoir. This streamlined process bypasses the need for the brine to be transported to evaporation ponds and eliminates the toxic salt piles that result from the conventional process.
Northwestern also notes that the Lilac process could be powered by electricity generated on site.
What About Free Trade?
CleanTechnica is checking in with Lilac to explore that on-site electricity angle and see if the company is ready to pinpoint likely areas of application, so stay tuned for more on that.
In the meantime, the global lithium picture is about as complicated as it can get.