The US Department of Energy along with General Motors and Rio Tinto are investing heavily in newer technologies that could potentially revolutionize the way lithium is produced for electric vehicle batteries.
As of now, these technologies are yet to prove that they work on a commercial scale.
Once these technologies are viable, miners will be able to boost global lithium production with a footprint far smaller than open-pit mines and evaporation ponds, which often are the size of multiple football fields and are hugely unpopular with local communities.
These, so-called, direct lithium extraction (DLE) technologies extract the white metal from brine using filters, membranes, ceramic beads or other equipment that can typically be housed in a small warehouse. They typically tons of potable water and electricity.
They are yet to work on a commercial scale.
Global automakers, mining companies and investors are pouring millions of dollars into DLE companies, betting they can supply the bulk of the lithium needed to power the electric vehicle revolution.
“It’s such a game changer. There’s huge opportunities,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at an energy conference on DLE.
Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc has been awarded a $15 million grant to test DLE technology at California’s Salton Sea, under which sit large geothermal lithium deposits.
DLE technologies challenge traditional miners such as Albemarle Corp, the world’s largest lithium producer, and prospective miners such as Lithium Americas Corp, ioneer Ltd and Piedmont Lithium Inc.
While Albemarle is studying various DLE technologies, according to its executives, DLE works best when engineered for a specific lithium deposit. Another hurdle is the massive quantities of water required for DLE technologies, which has raised eyebrows.
The technology General Motors Co is relying on to supply a “sizeable amount” of its lithium from the Salton Sea region uses 10 tonnes of water for every tonne of lithium produced. BMW and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures backed privately held Lilac Solutions Inc has developed that technology; it said it could use a desalination plant to filter brackish water to avoid using potable water.
“If needed, we’re willing to make those capital investments to ensure we’re not jeopardizing anyone’s freshwater,” said Lilac CEO Dave Snydacker. “New technology is absolutely essential for society to obtain the volumes of lithium that are necessary for electric vehicles.”
Earlier in February, prominent short seller Hindenburg Research came out with a 59-page report questioning the viability of DLE technology.
“DLE is one of those technologies that’s been a hope and a prayer, Hail Mary for most, so that’s fertile ground for stock promoters,” said Hindenburg’s Nathan Anderson.
“Direct lithium extraction is becoming a hot subject,” said Olivier Le Peuch, chief executive of Schlumberger Inc, which is developing DLE technology with Panasonic Corp. It hopes to supply Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory and has acknowledged that it must find a way to produce the metal without potable water.