In a significant transition towards sustainable resource extraction startups focus on environmentally friendly ways to mine lithium for EVs. Traditional mining practises linked with lithium extraction are frequently harmful to the environment. By utilizing cutting-edge technologies these startups are using eco-friendly ways to mine lithium.
The IRA requires an increasing amount of critical minerals for EV batteries to come from the United States or a country with close trading links with the United States in order to qualify for tax incentives. EnergyX, Controlled Thermal Resources, Lithium Americas, and Albemarle are the notable names in the initiative.
Teague Egan’s 2018 trip to Bolivia’s famed salt flats altered the course of his career. The flat is called Salar de Uyuni. The seemingly infinite expanse of powdery white crust contains the world’s greatest reserves of lithium, a critical component in batteries. The flat is mostly un-utilized. Teague Egan recognized an opportunity.
Lithium is an important component of batteries because it stores energy and can be recharged. Demand for the metal might more than quadruple by 2040 as governments strive to meet climate objectives by transitioning away from fossil-fuel-powered cars and electric grids. It demands for new and better ways for clean lithium mining.
The majority of lithium is extracted in two processes, both of which haven’t changed much in decades and can be harmful to the environment. There are two methods to obtain lithium. The first one is called open-pit mining.
The second one consists of pouring salty water, which is also known as brine, into large evaporation ponds. Under the sun, lithium is concentrated over time in this process. These methods use a lot of land, water, and chemicals, and also produce a lot of waste.
Egan, an early investor in Tesla, said “Lithium has never been needed like this before, so there hasn’t been a lot of research and development. I saw an opportunity to reinvent how it’s produced. That’s what got me excited.”
Egan, the founder and CEO of EnergyX, spent 5 years forming a team of 55 people, including 30 scientists and engineers. He aims to develop technology for producing lithium from brine beneath the Earth’s surface. EnergyX, based in Austin, is one of the startups and mining conglomerates researching direct lithium extraction, which can extract significantly more lithium in less time and may allow miners to avoid evaporation ponds entirely.
Demand for lithium and other minerals is expected to skyrocket in the next decades. This effort reflects rising pressure on the mining industry to improve its environmental record.
Data shows that moving from gas-powered automobiles to EVs greatly reduces greenhouse gas emissions – even when mining raw materials are considered. Additionally, communities living near mines are frequently forced to deal with disastrous consequences. All this demands for sustainable mining for EVs. No wonder startups using eco-friendly ways to mine lithium.
Hundreds of new mines are being built in preparation for the energy shift.
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a market analyst, estimated that 384 new nickel, cobalt, graphite, and lithium mines may be required globally by 2035. This concerns conservation groups and Indigenous communities, who frequently live on or near terrain with metals essential for the energy transition industry.
Startups using eco-friendly ways to mine lithium need to commercialize their technologies. The innovative technologies being developed by EnergyX and other businesses have not yet achieved commercial scale, most lithium supply will continue to come from open-pit mining and brine from evaporation ponds in the near term. EnergyX does not anticipate reaching full commercialization until 2025.
However, the field is moving quickly. The United States isn’t a significant lithium miner, but 15 projects are in various phases of development around the country, with over half involving direct lithium mining, according to a list collected by Jay Turner, environmental studies professor at Wellesley College.
Turner and his students began analyzing investments in the North American EV supply chain after President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act last year.
To qualify for tax incentives, the IRA requires an increasing amount of lithium and other essential minerals in a battery to come from the United States or a country with close trading relations with the United States. This percentage will climb year after year until it reaches 80%.
Fresh water and chemicals are limited
According to Egan, EnergyX’s pilot in Bolivia last year exhibited a 94% lithium-extraction rate from brine in evaporation ponds in a matter of days, which is significantly greater than the existing industry standard of 30% over 18 to 24 months.
The technologies used by EnergyX involve passing brine through resin beads that absorb lithium. Additionally, solvents are used to concentrate and extract minerals, and membranes are used to filter out contaminants. Just a little amount of fresh water and chemicals are utilized, and brine can be re-injected underground to minimize water table changes.
EnergyX is constructing five additional test beds, including one in Chile and Argentina, which, along with Bolivia, form what is known as the Lithium Triangle.
The other three EnergyX locations are in the United States, including the Salton Sea in California. Because hot brine is already being pumped to fuel geothermal power plants, that location is a major test bed for direct lithium extraction. The development is being driven by three companies: Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Controlled Thermal Resources and EnergySource Minerals.
Controlled Thermal Resources anticipates delivering 25,000 tons of battery-grade lithium hydroxide in 2025, while EnergySource Minerals anticipates a similar timetable for its initial deliveries. According to the California Energy Commission, the Salton Sea region is capable of producing 600,000 tons of lithium per year, which is more than the world now produces.
This movement is being supported by automakers keen to secure lithium supplies while minimizing environmental effects. The venture capital arm of General Motors spearheaded a $50 million fundraising round for EnergyX, and it has a collaboration with Controlled Thermal Resources.
The world needs these important minerals
To keep up with the rising demand for electric vehicles, car manufacturers need to keep extracting lithium from open-pit mines or through brine evaporation until direct extraction of lithium can be done more extensively. Startups using eco-friendly ways to mine lithium will prove to be the best possible way to deal with this growing demand.
Albemarle, a customer of Tesla and other automakers, operates the sole operating lithium mine in the United States near Silver Peak, Nevada, by tapping brines from evaporation ponds.
The business intends to increase Silver Peak’s output by 2025 and to restart the Kings Mountain open pit mine in North Carolina. The efforts are part of the company’s bigger worldwide lithium growth ambitions in the United States, Chile, and Australia to further solidify its position in the electric-vehicle supply chain.
Ellen Lenny-Pessagno, Albemarle’s worldwide vice president of external affairs and sustainability, said “The company is attempting to expand in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.”
Ellen further added, “Albemarle plans to eventually have all its mines audited by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a voluntary third-party standard that is more rigorous than US mining laws. One operation in Chile’s Salar de Atacama is already undergoing review.
The company is investing in renewable energy, technology that reduces freshwater use, and engaging with local communities about the environmental impacts.”
“We need to be perfectly assured that it won’t create any unforeseen environmental issues. We’re fully committed to moving forward on direct lithium extraction, but it’s going to be a process that takes time,” Lenny-Pessagno added.