Lithium prices skyrocket thanks to EVs and this startup has a more sustainable way to extract it

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Dave Snydacker is CEO and Founder of Lilac Solutions, a lithium mining startup based in Oakland, California.

Courtesy: Lilac Solutions Inc.

As consumers, we rely on lithium-ion batteries to power everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. Demand is skyrocketing and automakers are failing to strike partnerships quickly enough to keep pace.

This represents an economic challenge today. But the longer-term problem is that mining lithium has potentially serious environmental consequences. To obtain lithium by volume, it must either be extracted from hard rock or evaporated from underground brines, which are essentially saltwater ponds in the desert.

Cars are going electric and politicians are trying to make it happen faster. President Joe Biden aims for half of all new passenger vehicle sales in the United States to be electric by 2030, and California and New York have taken action to effectively ban the sale of new cars gasoline within a few years.

All of this requires more batteries, and climate-conscious engineers in Silicon Valley are trying to find a more sustainable way to extract the key ingredient.

Lilac Solutions, a start-up from Oakland, Calif., Is closing a $ 150 million funding round to develop technology that dramatically reduces the amount of soil and freshwater needed to extract lithium from continental brines. The cycle is led by Lowercarbon Capital of Chris Sacca and T. Rowe Price.

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Lilac CEO and founder Dave Snydacker said his company has demonstrated the ability to extract as much lithium from a one-acre system as the traditional method would from a 10,000-acre facility with a evaporation basin. As an alternative to evaporation techniques, the 35-person start-up has developed materials called ion exchange beads for lithium extraction. The beads look like millimeter white grains to the naked eye and are made of sturdy, hard but porous ceramic materials.

The company loads the logs into a large tank where there is a brine resource. As the brine passes through the tank, the beads absorb lithium while rejecting contaminants in the water, such as sodium, magnesium, calcium and boron. The system rinses the beads with hydrochloric acid to produce lithium chloride, then converts it to a powdered form of lithium, which automakers need to produce their battery cells.

“We don’t think California, New York or Joe Biden will achieve their EV goals without technology like this,” said Clay Dumas, Lowercarbon partner. Dumas said his company has invested more in Lilac than in any other company it has supported, and he sees the technology as potentially essential to solving problems in the US supply chain that could hamper US competitiveness.

“Many have tried to do it”

Lilac’s ion exchange beads can be reused hundreds of times before needing to be replaced. At this point, the company sends them back to their factory to melt them down and repackage them into new pearls.

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“Many have tried to do it,” Snydacker said. “But for the first time, Lilac has developed a bead that has the right chemical properties for commercial lithium production.”

With its funding, the company plans to double its workforce next year. It will also develop lithium pilot projects in Argentina and Chile to complement their US pilot, and will continue to send lithium samples to battery and auto manufacturers.

Loading of a pilot lithium extraction plant from Lilac Solutions for transport to a field site.

Courtesy: Lilac Solutions Inc.

Matthew Nordan, chief executive of the Prime Impact fund, said that in addition to using less water and more renewable energy than other lithium extraction methods, Lilac’s system also alleviates the waste problem of salt and meets a need for speed.

“If you look at how we make lithium for batteries today, a lot of it is done where God sees fit to put lakes of lithium,” said Nordan, a member of the board of directors of Lilac. “Companies dig pipelines, pump huge amounts of water out of the ground, end up with slimy sludge and take it to a truck. They leave behind salt, a lot, a lot of salt and every time it rains, the salt can leak. the valley in farmland. “

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Lilac pumps everything he took but didn’t use continental brine and puts it back where the company found it, he said. Without an increase in lithium production, Nordan added, the auto industry will face sharp cost increases.

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence predicts a lithium shortage in 2025 equivalent to 189,000 tonnes. The total size of the lithium market in 2015 was around 177,000 tonnes.

“This is a great example of the rapidly and steadily changing demand for lithium,” Simon Moores of Benchmark Mineral said in an email. “It is spreading at a rate that no other product has seen before. And all of it is being driven by a revolution in lithium-ion powered electric vehicles.”

According to Benchmark data, lithium represents 5% of the cost of a lithium-ion battery in a vehicle.

If automakers don’t get their raw materials under control, “the cost of their battery cells will likely increase in the years to come, offsetting two decades of falling battery prices,” Moores said.

Lilac’s Funding Round Includes Participation of Other New and Past Investors The Engine, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Tesla’s premier backer, Valor Equity Partners, among others.

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