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June 24, 2024
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Research by Cleantech Group points to Direct Lithium Extraction from brines to meet increasing demand

Lithium producers are struggling to meet today’slithiumdemand, which has risen steadily in the last few years, from 310,000 mt in 2020 to an estimated 917,000 mt by the end of 2023. This demand is projected to grow to a staggering 2.4 million mt in 2030.” -- statista.com

Interview with Buff López,Research Analyst, Cleantech Group

By Suzanne Forcese

WT: Please introduce yourself to our viewers.

López: At Cleantech Group, I am focused on the start-up, venture capital and corporate nexus to help identify investment opportunities for investors and corporate change-makers. As a passionate researcher for solving complex problems, I am exploring innovative cleantech solutions across many landscapes including Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE).

WT: What is Direct Lithium Extraction?

López: Right now, lithium is mostly extracted from hard rock with some extraction from brines in evaporitic ponds. Estimates suggest 2/3 of the globe's lithium deposits remain untapped in these brines that could deliver supply on a multi-ton scale.

The incumbent approach for brine processing is simple and easy, but the issue here is that it can take up to a decade to get permitting approval and then take just as long to bring the project online.

Afterward, it will still take months/years for the water to evaporate with only an average of 40-60% lithium recovery, whereas DLE yields a significantly higher average in just hours to days.

DLE is a relatively simple way to process lithium from brine (continental, salar, petrobrine, etc.) using a variety of methods involving adsorption, ion-exchange, membranes, and/or solvent extraction.

WT: How does the technology work?

López: There are various methods for mineral extraction. DLE yields an average of 70-90% material recovery at capital expenditure costs comparable to evaporitic ponds - when adjusted for higher yields. And each has its own benefits according to the type of brine it will be working on.
For example, most of these are non-weather-dependent unlike evaporation ponds.

Solvent extraction/ion-exchange use significantly more chemical reagents that result in fast degradation of equipment but are good for low Li concentrations and have high recovery rates.
Adsorption is relatively simple and may be well suited to brines of higher temperatures (geothermal) but can require large amounts of water and generally needs post-processing. 

Membrane separation utilizes techniques like nanofiltration that are great for purification purposes but generally require pre-concentrating with lithium and require an external gradient like high pressure to drive separation. It is typical to see membrane fouling that can lead to higher OpEx. There’s trade-offs between the types.

One thing to keep in mind is that brines are going to be chemically different in varying regions and environments. Different solutions will be required depending on the brine chemistry and location. But while there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, this does present opportunity for smaller players to partner with major players on a project-by-project basis.

WT: What are the environmental benefits of DLE? Other advantages?

López: DLE’s modular processing units reduce land use, reduce or eliminate pre-/post-processing at offsite refineries, reduce and recycle water, eliminate freshwater use, reduce energy, and reduce chemicals. All of this is expected to improve permitting lead times and enable more localized production outside of China.

Innovators can bring a project online in just months from initial design to production. What is more, modular processing plants can be ramped up/ramped down according to consumer demand, which will mean stabilized lithium costs for consumers.

WT: What are the advantages compared to traditional methods of extraction?

Lopez: Evaporitic ponds are the incumbent method. This method is relatively flexible and simple in that brine is pumped into a large pond and the water is left to evaporate naturally by the sun.

What is left over is sent to a refinery in China, typically. However, this method is subject to environmental conditions, has historically long permitting and lead times, can take months to evaporate, and has a recovery rate of 30-40%.

Environmental contamination is also common as brine leaks off into natural ecosystems and local waterways.

WT: In your report you have stated, “Due to geological variation, no two brines are chemically equivalent, and developers need to provide bespoke solutions based on the brine composition.” Please elaborate on this statement and why this "challenge" could be an opportunity.

López: Brines are located in geographically different locations with unique environmental conditions. This results in brines with their own chemical compositions.

A brine in South America will have a significantly different composition to a brine in France. This makes processing different across varying regions. Some developers have specific DLE types targeting a specific brine chemistry, whereas others combine various DLE technologies to cast a wider net of solutions for clients.

While this might sound challenging for developers, at the same time this site variability presents an attractive opportunity for smaller DLE players to provide custom solutions to major miners and mine owners, giving DLE developers who have not partnered with bigger players the opportunity to generate revenue.

WT: Carbon emissions is always a big topic. Is this something DLE can address?

López: Tapping into renewable power assets can help reduce carbon emissions. Summit Nanotech, for example, reports 50% GHG emissions compared to traditional pond projects by using renewables. Innovators are reducing, recycling, and in some cases even eliminating the use of freshwater in their processes.

WT: How soon can we expect to see commercial DLE demos online

López: As early as 2025.

WT: How much more cost effective is DLE?

López: Most importantly, the yield-normalized cost of DLE is competitive with traditional methods: The average capital expenditure required for a DLE project is approximately $600M (70–90% recovery) compared to $350M for evaporitic ponds (30–40% recovery). Some innovators, including EnergyX, Summit Nanotech, and Lilac Solutions, have even hit 90–99% lithium recovery efficiency.

WT: What have you concluded from your research?

López: As the quality of mineral ore drops, the global demand is only continuing to increase. Despite rising demand, investment in the mining sector has decreased in recent years.

Mining has traditionally been a risk-averse industry, largely due to the capital-intensive processes required for mining operations, shareholder resistance, and ESG risks, and innovation has been slow to be deployed in the field as a result.

 The mining sector needs to widen their scope with innovation.


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