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We Need A Better Way To Get Lithium, The Element Powering The EV Revolution

Current methods of extracting the element–the key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries–destroy landscapes and take two years to complete. The startup Lilac says it has developed a new process that’s both much faster and more sustainable.

We Need A Better Way To Get Lithium, The Element Powering The EV Revolution
“If we want to keep accelerating the growth of electric cars, we’re going to need new supplies of lithium, and new ways of accessing them.” [Photo: AIZAR RALDES /Getty]

Electric vehicles make up just 1% of the car market today, but by 2040, experts are predicting half of all cars sold will be electric. Volvo has pledged to only manufacture EVs or hybrids from 2019 on; Volkswagen wants to release 30 new EV models by 2030.

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What’s really holding them back for the time being is price, mainly due to the lithium-ion batteries necessary to power them. But as manufacturers like Tesla, whose Nevada-based Gigafactory will produce 35 gigawatt-hours of batteries each year by 2020, begin to scale up EV battery production, their costs will fall.

But as the EV battery industry balloons, it raises a question: How will it get its hands on enough lithium to maintain demand?

Lithium, the crucial ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, is a naturally occurring element found primarily in the brine of the salt flats of South America, China, and the United States. Traditionally, extracting lithium from the flats involves transferring brine to massive aboveground ponds; once the water evaporates out, the lithium is chemically separated from the salt, which is left out on in the landscape in quantities large enough to become toxic to plants and animals. The whole extraction process takes around two years, only captures around 50% of the lithium present, and drains already-dry landscapes of water.

As the battery industry expands, it can’t afford to continue to degrade the environment to extract this element, nor can it afford to lose half of the available lithium in the process. The resource is not infinite, and as more and more of it is pulled from the land, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for mining companies to locate lithium-rich areas from which to extract the element.

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Lilac Solutions, a startup founded in 2015 by Dave Snydacker, a PhD in materials science and engineering, has developed a method of extracting lithium that the company says takes just around a day, but uses 90% less water than traditional methods, and captures 80% of the lithium present in the brine. “If we want to keep accelerating the growth of electric cars, we’re going to need new supplies of lithium, and new ways of accessing them,” Snydacker tells Fast Company.

Instead of evaporating the brine in large pools, Lilac’s method involves pumping the brine from the salt flats into a large water tank filled with lithium-absorbent beads engineered by Snydacker and his team. These beads contain proprietary ion-exchange materials that Snydacker and his coworkers discovered while working toward his doctorate at Northwestern University. The beads essentially release lithium from the brine, allowing it to be collected directly from the tanks as the leftover brine is pumped back into the salt flats.

This method, Snydacker says, both preserves the integrity of the landscape (in comparison to the evaporation ponds, which can stretch as far as two square miles), and allows mining companies to extract lithium from salt flats that may not be as lithium-rich as those in places like South America; the low capture rate of the evaporation method has previously made extracting in other regions economically unviable.

The startup is still in the early days, but this year, it was awarded a $150,000 Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Department of Energy, and was selected as one of three sustainability-focused startups to join the first cohort of EQ Ventures, a new accelerator launched over the summer at Creating Equilibrium, a Lake Tahoe, California-based innovation forum. The accelerator seeks out startups “that are really creating a new market,” says founder Robert Suarez, a veteran of the design company Ideo. “What Dave is doing with Lilac is taking something that’s incredibly complex and inefficient–the way we extract lithium–and making it simpler and more accessible.”

While the company won’t release financials, Snydacker says their goal is to become the cheapest method of lithium extraction available to mining companies. Lilac is currently focusing on North America, where it’s signed deals with two mining projects–one in the U.S., and another in Canada–and is aiming to scale that number up through the help of the EQ Ventures accelerator. The company will not operate the water tanks; instead, it will sell the beads to the lithium mining companies. “We plan to be a major part of our customers’ operations, enabling them to bring on new projects that today are not viable,” Snydacker says.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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