New technology could be a “game changer” for lithium mining

February 22, 2020

A $20 million investment that is led by a fund backed by Bill Gates could revolutionize the lithium mining industry.

If the new technology from a lithium-mining technology firm Lilac Solutions proves to be commercially viable it could be a “game changer” according to Nicolas Saldias, a senior researcher at the Wilson Institute think tank’s Lithium Triangle Initiative. Lilac, which announced the investment said its ion exchange technology is twice as efficient as the current mining process and takes a fraction of the time.

Currently, it takes an estimated 70,000 liters of water to mine a single ton of lithium. Lithium is often found in the world’s driest places, and its production is reportedly wreaking havoc on the water supplies of indigenous communities in Chile’s Atacama desert, which is home to a giant deposit of the sought-after metal.

Quartz reported that most of the world’s lithium is found in underground pools of briny water. The lithium is brought to the surface when mining companies pump large volumes of water into the brine to form ponds above ground. The ponds are left to evaporate and the lithium is then filtered out of the remaining material.

Lilac’s technology uses what it calls “ion exchange beads,” which the company says can separate the lithium from the other materials in the water. Once the lithium is removed, Lilac says it can reuse the water instead of waiting months for it to evaporate. The process collects 80 percent of the available lithium, compared to around 40 percent under current methods, and takes a matter of hours, as opposed to up to two years, Lilac says.

The technology could also unlock the vast potential of Bolivia, which has the world’s largest lithium reserves but doesn’t produce any because of tricky weather conditions, Saldias said. “If you have a lot of weather like rain and clouds, it makes it very difficult to extract,” he said. “[But] if you have this technology, which reduces the necessity of the evaporation process, it means it will probably make it much more valuable for a country like Bolivia to see its massive resources being more exploitable.”

Lilac CEO David Snydacker told Bloomberg he eventually hopes to use the technology to pull lithium out of brine that’s produced in other forms of energy production, such as oil mining and geothermal power. Breakthrough Ventures, the lead investor in the fundraising round, is backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Alibaba’s Jack Ma, as well as Gates.

California-based Lilac will use the investment to expand its engineering staff and scale up production of its beads, and to deploy the new technology in projects throughout South America and the US. A pilot run in Argentina is planned for later this year, Snydacker said.

 

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