May 24, 2023
New innovations in lithium extraction are opening up new frontiers for North American lithium miners.
Over the decades, the vast majority of lithium production around the globe has been derived from brines. This is especially true in the Lithium Triangle of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, which is endowed with massive salt flats — which the locals refer to as “salars.”
Lithium extraction from brines is a relatively straightforward process whereby the brines are pumped to the surface allowing the sun and wind to work their evaporative magic.
The remaining saline solution is further processed in several stages until the lithium material is suitable for use in lithium-ion batteries: for example, lithium hydroxide and lithium carbonate.
The other traditional main source of lithium production is from the underground hard rock mining of spodumene — an ore that contains high levels of lithium as well as aluminum. Australia is by far the world’s biggest hard rock lithium producer.
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In hard rock lithium mining, the spodumene ore has to be processed, which involves the separating of the metal from the source rock followed by further refining to attain battery-level quality.
North America is endowed with both types of primary lithium sources; for example, Albemarle’s Silver Peak lithium brine mine in Nevada and Patriot Battery Metals’ recent hard rock spodumene lithium discovery in the James Bay region of Quebec.
Yet, lithium extraction from brines and hard rock sources both have huge land footprints and are often very water intensive and can create tons of contamination and waste.
Those issues are giving way to new technologies that could literally rewrite the way lithium is separated from its source material.
In terms of lithium production from brines, a new extraction technique called Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) — pioneered by Bill Gates’-backed Lilac Solutions — is being tested and developed by a number of mining companies and research institutions.
Albemarle, for example, is working toward implementing DLE at its Atacama salar in Chile.
So far commercially unproven, the method could preserve water tables by allowing the brines to be reinjected underground after the lithium is extracted.
In DLE, lithium is selectively extracted from brines using various techniques often involving the use of chemical agents. The goal is to separate lithium ions from other elements present in the brine and concentrate them for further processing.
There are a number of DLE technologies and processes under development but they generally involve the following steps:
- Pre-treatment: The brine is first processed to remove impurities and to adjust pH and composition to optimize lithium extraction.
- Extraction: Various techniques are used to selectively extract lithium ions from the brine, which can include ion exchange, adsorption, solvent extraction, or other separation methods.
- Concentration: The extracted lithium ions are concentrated to increase the lithium content for subsequent processing and refining.
- Recovery: The concentrated lithium is further processed to recover lithium in a usable form. This may involve chemical precipitation, electrolysis, or other methods to obtain lithium compounds suitable for battery production or other applications.
Direct Lithium Extraction offers potential advantages over traditional evaporative methods as it can be more environmentally friendly, requiring less land and water and producing fewer waste materials. It can also have faster processing times and higher lithium recovery rates.
The goal for lithium miners such as Albemarle and others is to optimize the efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and scalability of DLE through pilot programs as a means of proving the methodology’s commercial viability.
The technique, if proven to work at scale, could have enormous implications for the Salton Sea near Palm Springs, California, which the California Energy Commission estimates holds enough lithium to meet all of America’s projected future demand and 40% of global demand.
The new US Inflation Reduction Act, which prioritizes domestic sourcing of minerals for EV batteries, combined with California’s new rule to end sales of new gasoline cars over the next decade, will only intensify that demand.
And the opportunities there are much more than just the potential for the utilization of DLE.
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Three companies — Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Controlled Thermal, and EnergySource Minerals — are developing DLE processes in a much cleaner way, taking advantage of the Salton Sea’s rich geothermal resources.
Near the lake, there are 11 operating geothermal power plants, 10 of which are owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s renewable energy division — BHE Renewables.
Alicia Knapp, president and CEO of BHE Renewables, says, “We are already pumping 50,000 gallons of brine per minute across all of our 10 geothermal facilities to the surface, and we’re using the steam from that brine to generate clean energy. So we’re really halfway there in that we’ve got the lithium right here in our hands.”
Our own John Borgquist of Profit Cycle Pro is heading to the Salton Sea this week, with camera crew in tow, to check out the immense profit potential for himself and for his readers.
He’ll be producing a full-length report on his findings upon his return — something you definitely don’t want to miss.
Next week, we’ll take a look at lithium extraction from clays near Thacker Pass in northern Nevada and lithium extraction from petroleum brines in Alberta, Canada.
Editor, Daily Profit Cycle