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  • Steven Roy

Follow The Lithium - Part 4

The twin demons: The necessity

  • To increase lithium production, and

  • To mitigate the environmental impacts of doing so.

Have accelerated research and applications designed to meet both objectives. The most promising of these technologies, Direct Lithium Extraction, has been implemented in several (small) projects. The technology that may eventually be more important than new extraction techniques - battery recycling - is still in its infancy and not expected to mature until the end of the decade.

Brine: Ion-exchange - Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE)

In Direct Lithium Extraction, lithium containing brines are forced through resinous membranes (either ion exchange or reverse osmosis membranes *1 ) or sorbents that selectively permit Lithium passage or prohibit other ions from passing, or both. *2 The effluent from the membrane system contains a high concentration of lithium and, effectively, little else. For example, E3 Lithium’s sorbent system boasts:

  • Over 90% lithium recovery,

  • Over 98% impurity removal (eg. calcium, magnesium, sodium), and

  • 20x-100x lithium concentration factor

As E3 points out, Direct Lithium Extraction has at least three advantages over conventional evaporative extraction:

  • The process is fast. Lithium is recovered in minutes, not months.

  • The process’ footprint is much smaller. Saline formation water is re-injected back into the formation. Evaporative ponds, mining waste dumps, open pit mines or tailings ponds are eliminated.

  • The process requires no freshwater aquifer interaction.

Several ventures apply Direct Lithium Extraction to “brownfield or waste brine applications:

A coalition of Energysource, Berkshire Hathaway Renewables, and Controlled Thermal Resources *3 will modify, expand, or build geothermal heat facilities near California’s Salton Sea and apply Direct Lithium Recovery-Extraction (DLE or DLR) techniques directly to the geothermal brine. The processes would produce what is arguably the world’s greenest Lithium.

In Alabama, Standard Lithium plans to extract lithium from waste brine produced by a bromine facility run by the chemical company Lanxess. Standard Lithium’s proposed facility would produce up to 6,000 tons per year of battery-grade lithium carbonate using DLE technology.

MGX Minerals is developing a Direct Lithium Extraction technology to extract lithium from petroleum brine – producing “petrolithium.” The company is building a pilot plant that would process 300 barrels per day. Vancouver-based Comstock Metals recently has formed a joint venture partnership with E3 Metals.

Secondary Recovery - Recycling

Despite exponential growth of the Lithium market, lithium battery recycling is still in its formative stages. For many years, companies that entered the battery recycling arena treated Lithium as an unwanted byproduct of recovering other, more valuable, materials – chiefly Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, and Aluminum.

Many factors contribute to recycler’s past indifference to lithium: Historically,

Lithium prices were inadequate to sustain an economically viable recycling market. As recently as August 2020, Lithium Carbonate *4 traded at $6,130 per metric ton. As Chinese electric automobile manufacturing gained momentum, COVID interfered with Lithium supply chains, and global demand accelerated, Lithium Carbonate prices doubled, to $13,924 in August 2021, and quadrupled the next year to trade at $59,928 in August 2022. While this pricing is not expected to persist, it may provide impetus to the recycling market.

The volume of recyclable Lithium was too small for efficient operating scale. Until recently, only ~3% of Lithium bearing electronic products were recycled. (Compare this to a nearly 95% recycle rate for automobile lead-acid batteries.) Lithium recycle volume will increase as Electric and Autonomous Vehicle use increases and localized energy storage expands. An International Energy Agency (IEA) study concludes the global lithium-ion recycling battery market will grow by $1.11 billion, at a CAGR of 17.8% over the 2021 – 2025 period. In light of recent activity, the report may have been too conservative.

The recovery process itself was not conducive to lithium recovery: In older recovery methods, batteries were shredded, and the recovered material (including the “black mass”) was pyrolyzed (pyrometallurgy). Often this made it difficult to separate the lithium component of the battery from other components – sometimes making Lithium literally irrecoverable. Advances in hydrometallurgy, while still not the most prevalent approach, show promise of relieving these difficulties. *5

Time is, in all probability, the primary deterrent to developing a fully functional Lithium recycling market.

Lithium batteries used in electric vehicles and energy storage systems have a long useful life (ten to twelve years, by most estimates) but have been actively on the market for a relatively short time. Recycling volume will not reach feasible levels until current batteries are no longer viable – 8-10 years from now.

By the time Lithium recycling reaches maturity, processing methods will have changed – older methods may need to be replaced – requiring reinvestment in already existing facilities.

The long lead-time to market maturity reduces the ROI of current investments in Lithium recycling. The evolution of processing methods potentiates the uncertainty. Hence, current investment in Lithium recycling is more a “Pioneer” than an “Early bird gets the worm” scenario. *6 There is little incentive to invest in Lithium recycling until the investment can be recaptured shortly after facilities are constructed.

Notwithstanding the recycle industry’s immaturity, it supports several early entrants.

Ascend Elements shreds used batteries and places their elements in solution. However, instead of isolating individual metals, Ascend extracts impurities from solution and recovers the cathode ingredients. Adjusting concentrations allows Ascend to directly produce cathode materials without intermediate purification processes.

American Battery Technology Company “utilizes internally developed proprietary technologies to produce domestically-sourced battery grade critical and strategic metals at substantially lower cost and lower environmental impact than current conventionally sourced battery metals.” American Battery is building its first pre-commercial-scale plant in Reno, Nevada. When completed, the facility will process 20,000 ton of batteries per year

Li Cycle Holdings, a Canadien company, currently operates in three locations with a fourth pending in Alabama. Li Cycle recently entered a partnership agreement with VinES, a battery and cell pack manufacturer and a member company of Vingroup, the largest private conglomerate in Vietnam. To date, Li Cycle has provided customized solutions for both battery logistics and element recovery.

Redwood Materials, a startup led by Tesla co-founder and CTO JB Straubel, is “creating a closed-loop, domestic supply chain for lithium-ion batteries across collection, refurbishment, recycling, refining, and remanufacturing of sustainable battery materials.” The Reno, Nevada company employs a low-temperature calcination process to extract electrolyte from old battery cells. The process recovers upward of 95 percent of the battery materials. Umicore SA is a leading circular materials technology company with an extensive expertise in the fields of material science, chemistry and metallurgy. Umicore has high expectations; “Between now and 2030, our ambition is to be a true transformation partner for our customers, guiding them on their journey towards sustainability and circularity.”

*1 For reasons known only to the reporting-professions, many popular articles refer to these as “filters,” a description that hardly does them justice. Nano-filtration approaches to Lithium extraction are under development. We know of no commercial deployment of the technique, as yet (12/2022). *2 The precise nature of the mechanism is generally treated as proprietary. Even patent applications often do not specify the materials or sorbents used in the applications. Google’s patent applications are typical. *3 With supporting investment from General Motors, who will also be the venture’s primary customer. *4 Lithium Carbonate Li2CO3 is the benchmark commodity for pricing and trading Lithium. *5 C.f., Gaines, Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Processes: Research towards a Sustainable Course for an in-depth discussion of current recovery methods. *6 “Disruptive” investment is a popular notion in recent years. However, many long-time entrepreneurs remain cautious… maintaining that it is often easy to recognize a “Pioneer” by the buffalo tracks across their forehead.

These blogs are an outgrowth of Cambyses Financial Advisor’s Electric and Autonomous Vehicle Initiative. Articles are not an endorsement of any product or producer we mention in the article. They are not an offer to buy or sell any security. Investments in EAV sector companies are very risky and highly speculative. Consult your financial advisor for more information about the companies we mention.

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