Dave Snyder is the CEO and founder of Oakland-based lithium extraction startup Lilac Solutions in California.
Courtesy: Lilac Solutions Inc.
As consumers, we rely on lithium-ion batteries in everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. Demand is rising, and carmakers can’t quickly secure partnerships.
This presents an economic challenge today. But the long-term problem is that lithium extraction has potentially serious environmental consequences. To get lithium in volume, it has to be excavated from hard rock or evaporated from surface brine, which is basically a saltwater pond in the desert.
Cars are running electric, and politicians are trying to make it faster. President Joe Biden aims to make half of all new passenger vehicle sales in the United States electric by 2030, and California and New York have taken steps to effectively ban the sale of new petrol cars in a few years.
All of this requires more batteries, and Silicon Valley climate-related engineers are trying to find a more sustainable way to extract the original material.
Lilac Solutions, a start-up in Oakland, California, is in the process of closing a 150 million fund to develop technology that dramatically reduces the amount of land and freshwater needed to extract lithium from continental brine. The round is led by Chris Sakar Lowercarbon Capital and T Row Row.
Dave Snydicker, CEO and founder of Lilac, said his company has demonstrated the ability to extract as much lithium from a one-acre-sized system as the conventional method would benefit from a 10,000-acre facility, including an evaporation pond. As an alternative to evaporation techniques, 35-person start-ups are advanced materials called ion-exchange beads for lithium extraction. The beads are white to the naked eye, one millimeter granular and made of hard, ceramic material that is hard but porous.
The company loads the beads into a large tank where a brine resource is located. As the brine flows through the tank, the beads absorb lithium while rejecting contaminants in the water, such as sodium, magnesium, calcium and boron. The system flushes the beads with hydrochloric acid to produce lithium chloride and then converts it into lithium powder, which car manufacturers need to produce their battery cells.
“We don’t think California, New York or Joe Biden will achieve their electric vehicle goals without such technology,” said Clay Dumas, a partner at LowerCarbon. Dumas said his company has invested more in Lilac than any other company they support, and he sees technology as a potential central hub for solving U.S. supply chain problems that could hamper American competition.
‘Many have tried it’
Lilac ion-exchange beads can be reused hundreds of times before replacement. At that point, the company sends them back to their factory so that they can be melted down and rebuilt into new beads.
“A lot of people have tried it,” Snyder said. “But for the first time, lilac makes a bead that has the right chemical properties for commercial lithium production.”
Through its funding, the company plans to double the number per capita next year. It will also develop pilot lithium projects in Argentina and Chile to complement their U.S. pilots and continue to send lithium samples to battery and car manufacturers.
A lilac solution lithium extraction pilot plant loading for transport to a field site.
Courtesy: Lilac Solutions Inc.
Matthew Nordan, managing director of the Prime Impact Fund, said that in addition to using less water and renewable energy than other lithium extraction methods, Lilac’s system also eliminates the problem of salt waste and meets the need for speed.
“If you look at how we make lithium for batteries today, a lot is being done where the good lord deems it appropriate to have a lake of lithium,” said Northern, a member of the Lilac Board. “Companies dig in lines, pump large amounts of water from the soil, finish with a viscous slurry and take it in a truck. They leave salt, lots and lots of salt, and every time it rains the salt can flow down to the valley farmland. “
Lilac pumps everything she takes but doesn’t use from Continental Bryan and leaves the company where it finds it. Without increasing lithium production, Norden added, the auto industry will face steep cost increases.
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence has forecast a lithium shortage in 2025, equivalent to 189,000 tons. The size of the entire lithium market in 2015 was about 177,000 tons.
“This is a great example of how quickly and consistently the demand for lithium is growing,” said Simon Moores of Benchmark Minerals in an email. “It’s going at an original rate at a rate that no other product has experienced before.
According to benchmark data, lithium consumes 5% of lithium ion batteries in a car.
If carmakers don’t get a hold on their raw materials, “their battery cell prices will rise in the coming years, which will lower the price of batteries by two decades,” Moores said.
The financing round of Lilac includes the participation of other new and previous investors Engines, Breakthrough Energy Ventures and early Tesla Backer Vallar Equity Partners, among others.
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