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Inside Clean Energy: In a World Starved for Lithium, Researchers Develop a Method to Get It from Water

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The world needs vast quantities of lithium to meet demand for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage. And the United States is way behind China in securing a supply of this rare metal.

Catching up in this global race may take some magic, or at least a process that looks like magic.

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington have produced magnets that can separate lithium and other metals from water. This approach has the potential to allow companies to affordably gather lithium from sources like the brine used in geothermal power systems and the waste water left over from use by industry.

“We believe that this thing can be big,” said Jian Liu, a senior research engineer at the lab.

The lab has developed a magnetic “nanoparticle” that binds to the materials the user is trying to extract from a liquid. Then, as the liquid passes over a magnetic field, the nanoparticle, which is now latched onto the desired material—usually lithium—gets pulled out.

Liu and his team have been developing this system for eight years. The version in the lab looks like a collection of water containers connected by clear plastic tubes and electronic pumps.

In a 2016 YouTube video put out by the lab, a researcher places a small jar of black liquid on a magnet, and the liquid quickly separates into a clear liquid on top and a black clump of metal particles on bottom, like an elementary school science experiment.

Jian Liu

At that time, Liu was focusing on how to extract lithium from the liquid that circulates in geothermal power plants. A geothermal power plant captures heat from below the earth’s surface to produce steam that turns a turbine to make electricity. The heat transfer takes place by circulating a liquid that travels from the ultra-hot depths of the earth to the surface and then back again.

The United States has more than 100 geothermal power plants, most of which are small, with combined capacity of less than 4,000 megawatts. But entrepreneurs are working on projects that could make geothermal a larger part of the energy mix and an important part of the transition to carbon-free electricity.

But geothermal power plants are just part of the opportunity, Liu explained. The same system can be used to gather lithium from “produced water,” which includes waste water from mining, fracking and other industrial processes, and this could be a major source of lithium. (My colleague Liza Gross has written about some of the environmental concerns related to produced water, which can serve as a reminder that some of the potential good from the research at the Pacific Northwest lab is tied to industries and practices with major downsides.)

Here’s the back-of-the-envelope math: Based on an estimate of 1 trillion gallons of produced water in the United States and an average of 9 parts per million of lithium in that water, the lab’s system has the technical potential to be used to recover 34,000 tons of lithium per year, which is several multiples of current U.S. production, Liu said.

The main caveat is that the process has a cost that means it only makes economic sense for use in liquids with higher concentrations of lithium. The lab’s research is working to reduce the costs.

The Rising Need for Lithium

Right now, the process is profitable for use in geothermal power plants with 100 parts per million of lithium, with a rate of return of about 15 percent, Liu said, citing estimates. But only a few geothermal plants have that much lithium in their brine.

The lab is working with Moselle Technologies, a Texas-based company that is exploring various methods for obtaining lithium and other rare metals.

Moselle makes the case for the technology by drawing a contrast with some of the most common methods of gathering lithium, like the use of large evaporation ponds, which are inefficient and often a blight on the surrounding environment.

I need to step back here and say that the system being developed by the Pacific Northwest lab is one of many projects at research institutions across the country trying to help increase the supply of lithium and do it in a way that is less harmful to the environment. For example, Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois is working with SQM of Chile, one of the world’s leading lithium producers, on various methods that would reduce the environmental damage from evaporation ponds.

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Any one of these research efforts could end up being part of the larger picture of increasing the supply of lithium and other rare metals and reducing the harmful effects of lithium extraction.

At the same time, researchers are looking at a variety of alternatives to lithium that would allow for the production of batteries from materials that are much more common and less expensive. Among the emerging technologies are “sodium-ion” batteries, which have the potential to pack in more energy at a much lower cost than lithium-ion batteries.

I don’t know what’s going to end up making a difference in the market, but the fact that so much research is focusing on this area gives me confidence that current concerns about the lithium supply are not a permanent condition.

Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

California Regulators to Take More Time on Net Metering: The California Public Utilities Commission is asking for a new round of feedback on how to structure the financial system for rooftop solar owners. This latest request for information will last until June 10, indicating that the commission is not close to a decision on the long-running and controversial process of revising rooftop solar rules, as Ryan Kennedy reports for PV Magazine. The commission released a proposed decision in the case last year that would have dramatically decreased the financial benefits of owning rooftop solar in the state that is the country’s rooftop solar leader. Then, after blowback from the solar industry and many environmental groups, the commission said in February that it wasn’t going to vote on the proposal and instead was going to take more time to review the case.

World’s Largest Battery Maker Vetting Sites for First U.S. Factory: Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., or CATL, is looking close to announcing a decision on where it will build its first U.S. factory, with South Carolina and Kentucky being considered. The Chinese company is the world’s largest maker of batteries for electric vehicles and other uses and its expansion into the United States is likely to have ripple effects across the battery and automotive industries. The new U.S. plant would provide batteries for BMW and Ford, as Christoph Steitz and Ben Klayman report for Reuters.

Inside Elon Musk’s Mystery Plan for Texas: Tesla has built a sprawling factory in Austin, Texas. But that might just be the beginning of what could become a collection of businesses tied to Tesla CEO Elon Musk that could locate on 3,100 acres that he or his affiliates own near the factory. Austin is becoming the center of Musk’s global businesses, although there are few details about what the executive is planning to do with all that land, as David Ferris reports for E&E News. The growth of Musk’s companies is already transforming Austin, contributing to a spike in land prices and concerns that the character of the area will go through a fundamental shift.

Federal Government Will Buy Power Line Capacity to Encourage Construction: The Department of Energy has released details of a plan to buy capacity on proposed interstate power lines, a step that would help developers of the lines to finance the projects. The $2.5 billion program would apply to projects that carry at least 1,000 megawatts, or 500 megawatts if they are upgrades to existing lines, as Ethan Howland reports for Utility Dive. The program is part of the department’s Building a Better Grid initiative, with funding authorized by the infrastructure law signed last year by President Joe Biden. Building interstate power lines is an essential part of developing renewable energy, as companies build wind and solar projects in rural areas and need to deliver the electricity to population centers.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to [email protected].


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