How new lithium extraction technology could help us meet electric vehicle targets

The world contains vast quantities of lithium, an integral element in electric vehicle batteries. And though lithium is commonly mined from hard rock, the majority of the world’s lithium reserves are actually found in brine, extremely salty water beneath the Earth’s surface.

Today, brine mining involves evaporating the brine in massive, extravagantly colored pools over a series of about 18 months, leaving high concentrations of lithium behind. It’s a simple but inefficient process that takes up vast swaths of land and is ecologically disruptive.

As automakers around the world struggle to meet extraordinarily ambitious electric vehicle production targets, there’s growing interest in doing things differently.

″The auto industry requires a 20x increase in lithium supply, and there’s just no way to achieve that type of growth with conventional technologies,” said Dave Snydacker, founder and CEO of Lilac Solutions.
Lilac is one of a number of companies piloting a set of new and largely unproven technologies called direct lithium extraction, or DLE, which could increase the efficiency and decrease the negative externalities of the brine mining process.

Instead of concentrating lithium by evaporating brine in large pools, DLE pulls the brine directly into a processing unit, puts it through a series of chemical processes to separate the lithium, then injects it back underground. This process produces battery-grade lithium carbonate or hydroxide in a matter of hours, without the need to transport concentrated brine to a separate processing facility.

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