A decade ago when the EV revolution first began, people were running around warning that there was not enough lithium available in the world to meet the demand. China was buying up all the lithium rights it could find all over the world, particularly in South America, and there were dark rumblings about future wars being fought over lithium instead of oil.
Some well informed people pointed out that lithium is one of the Earth’s most abundant minerals and that historically, when there is demand, new ways are found of extracting minerals wherever they may be found. Aluminum, iron, and copper do not occur in their pure form naturally. They have to be separated from raw materials like bauxite, iron ore, or azurite.
The curtain falls and time passes. Now it’s 2020. New and novel ways are being found to extract commercial-grade lithium from what otherwise are industrial waste products. Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany are using a new process to extract lithium from the groundwater used by geothermal energy plants in the Upper Rhine area.
Ordinarily, after making heat or electricity, that water is pumped back underground, even though it contains quite a lot of lithium. The new KIT process removes that lithium before the water is sent back where it came from. KIT says thousands of tons of lithium could be extracted from all that groundwater each year as its proprietary process is improved and adopted more widely.
Standard Lithium is a British Columbia-based company that is doing something similar. Southern Arkansas is one of the largest producers of bromine, which is extracted from groundwater. In all, several billion gallons of water are processed each year. After the bromine is removed, the water is pumped back underground. Sound familiar?
Standard Lithium has developed a process that removes the lithium from the wastewater before it disappears back below ground. It then ships it to its facility in British Columbia where it is processed into commercial-grade lithium carbonate crystals. Both operations are going well in initial testing, but have not yet been combined due to travel restrictions between the US and Canada as a result of the coronavirus.
In a press release, Dr. Andy Robinson, President and COO of Standard Lithium, says, “Standard Lithium continues to execute on our key project milestones. We have successfully started and operated the industrial scale DLE plant in Arkansas and now we are starting up our next-generation lithium carbonate crystallisation plant. These achievements are a testament to the hard work and dedication of our talented technical team and our project partners. We continue to make significant strides towards commercial execution, and our large scale pilot plants provide the necessary proof-of-concept.”
The Standard Lithium demonstration plant uses the company’s proprietary LiSTR technology to selectively extract lithium from the waste water of bromine production. The scaleable, environmentally friendly process eliminates the use of evaporation ponds, reduces processing time from months to hours and greatly increases the effective recovery of lithium. The company is also pursuing the resource development of over 30,000 acres of separate brine leases located in southwestern Arkansas and approximately 45,000 acres of mineral leases located in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, California.
A lithium carbonate crystallization pilot plant in British Columbia using the company’s proprietary SiFT technology began operating recently. The lithium chloride from Arkansas is shipped to British Columbia for final conversion in the SiFT plant. Once travel restrictions are lifted, a SiFT facility will be built in Arkansas and staffed by Standard Lithium employees, eliminating the cost and delay required to transmit the lithium chloride from Arkansas to Canada.
The entire process is part of a joint venture with Lanxess, which operates the largest bromine production facilities in the US. The waste water it usually sends back underground will instead first go through Standard Lithium’s extraction process co-located at a Lanxess production facility. Standard Lithium’s LiSTR lithium extraction process takes advantage of the fact that the waste brine leaving the bromine process is already heated to approximately 70° C, meaning no additional energy is required. It also takes up very little space compared to the evaporation ponds typically used to concentrate lithium from brine.
Demand for lithium worldwide today is about 300,000 tons, of which only 1% is sourced from within the US. The figure is expected to grow to 1 million tons a year by 2025, particularly as electric vehicles and grid scale battery storage continue to gain in popularity. If the US is concerned about energy security, it should be hugely supportive of the work Standard Lithium is doing.