The race for lithium – a new method makes water-derived lithium possible

Excerpt from biomarketinsights.com

Lithium is the mineral on everyone’s mind. Also termed as the ‘white oil’ of the renewable revolution, the material is a central component of batteries for electric vehicles (EV’s) and energy storage solutions and economies across the globe are vying to monopolise on the blossoming market. Currently, the world’s largest lithium producers are Australia and the ‘Lithium Triangle’ producers; Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. While Australia predominantly extracts the mineral from the ground using open-cut mining methods, the latter countries have their lithium abundance in its salt pans which is sourced using solar evaporation – a time and cost consuming method. Finding economic and effective ways of extracting lithium from water has thus far proven a challenge, and has limited the amount of material that can be reaped from the aqueous sources.

Now, a team of engineers from the University of Texas at Austin and University of California, Santa Barbara have announced the development of a novel means to extract lithium from contaminated water using new membrane technology. While this solution remains in its nascent stages, it could prove a huge development for the lithium industry in the provision of a cost effective way to extract the mineral from aqueous brines. We took a closer look at the research, and what it could mean for the rare earths sector.

The new technology 

The latest research was published last week in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences and demonstrates how the team introduced a new class of ‘polymeric membranes’ to separate lithium from water, leaving behind other ions such as sodium (a common contaminant in water). While polymeric membranes are already an established means of water filtration, traditional forms do not have high levels of ion selectivity and so yield low grades of lithium – something that the researchers’ solution seeks to remedy.