The head of a Canadian-listed company that’s developed a new system for extracting lithium, a critical mineral for electrification of the global economy, says it has proven it can tap smaller concentrations of the substance with minimal environmental disturbance.
International Battery Metals Ltd. IBAT-CN said on Tuesday an independent engineering review has concluded the company’s modular, mobile lithium extraction plant obtains more than 65 per cent of the lithium from brine, which is saline groundwater enriched with dissolved lithium. It also recycles and reuses 94 per cent of the water in the process, according to a report by SLR Consulting Ltd.
British-based SLR conducted its review at International Battery Metals’ commercial-scale modular plant in Lake Charles, La., which has been flow-testing lithium-bearing brine since May. A big benefit of the technology, the company says, is its portability in a world where demand for the mineral is skyrocketing.
The technology was developed by company chairman and chief executive officer John Burba, a Texan who has worked on extraction projects in North and South America and patented numerous lithium-related technologies over four decades.
“This is a commercial-scale plant. This is not a pilot plant. It’s not a toy. It’s not a benched-off demonstration thing. It’s the real deal. We built it in 10 months. We assembled it in 10 days with nine people. We’ve operated it and demonstrated everything through SLR,” Dr. Burba said in an interview.
“Because of the modularity, we can pick this thing up, and put it on trucks, and haul it anywhere we want to haul it.”
Demand for lithium, used in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other energy storage, could increase 40 times by 2040 as the world deploys the technologies necessary for limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, according to the International Energy Agency. Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk recently told Texas his EV company is considering building a lithium processing plant in the state as a way to diversify supplies, most of which it obtains from China.
Lithium can be extracted from brine and from hard rock. The IEA noted that extraction sites are vulnerable to increasing climate risks. More than half of the world’s production is concentrated in areas with water shortages. This has shone the spotlight on recycling and new extraction technologies.
In one of the world’s largest deposits, in Chile’s Atacama Desert, brine is pumped into massive holding ponds, where it can take years to separate the lithium through evaporation. This puts immense pressure on the region’s limited water resources and damages wetlands.
International Battery Metals said the absorbent in its process strips out the lithium, but leaves other naturally occurring elements so the brine can be reintroduced into the environment.
“They’ve created a stunning mess in the Atacama, and it will take a long time, if ever, for that place to recover. So we’re avoiding the problem from the start,” Dr. Burba said. “We’re not going to be drawing vast amounts of fresh water from the resource. The other thing is our system is designed for simple reinjection of the brine back into the resource.”
He said SLR agreed with the company that the modular technology would allow it to access a more diverse range of brine resources around the world, including smaller concentrations. Those include sites in the United States that are currently considered uneconomical using today’s commonly used technology.
The plant has capacity to produce 5,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent per year from a brine with a lithium concentration of 1,800 parts per million. It can be scaled up to 20,000 tonnes per year, International Battery Metals said. Extraction rates were higher than with other methods currently being used, on average, the review found.
The company’s current plans include building, owning and operating the plants, largely because it wants to protect the intellectual property. It could be open to other business arrangements in the future. “For a while we want to stay very proprietary,” Dr. Burba said.