Editorial Feature

Using Solar Technology for Ultrafast Lithium Extraction

Most electric vehicles produced today use lithium-ion batteries. Sales of electric vehicles have shown significant growth in recent years, with electric vehicle sales accounting for 5.6% of the automotive market in the second quarter of 2022, compared with 2.7% in the same period in 2021.

lithium, extraction

Image Credit: Jose Luis Stephens/Shutterstock.com

The market share of electric vehicles will continue to rise as countries implement bans on petrol and diesel vehicles to meet emissions targets. The UK has banned the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, and the European Union’s similar ban will come into force in 2035.

The US has begun to follow suit, with California recently announcing plans to ban sales of new gasoline cars from 2035. This shift to electric vehicles is fueled by the need to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Increased demand for electric vehicles is the key driver for the increased demand for lithium in lithium-ion batteries. Recent statistics predict that the global demand for lithium batteries will increase five-fold by the end of the decade. In the US, demand will increase six-fold over the same period.

In 2020, roughly 0.4 million metric tons of lithium carbonate were produced. By 2030, it is predicted that demand will increase to 3.3 million metric tons. By the end of the decade, as much as 95% of extracted lithium will be used in batteries, representing a significant increase from 30% in 2015.

To meet this demand, scientists are tasked with developing sustainable lithium extraction methods.

Overcoming the Challenges of Current Li Extraction Methods

Dubbed the “white petroleum” of the modern energy sector, lithium (Li) is vital to the Earth’s electric future. A sustainable method must be established to produce enough Li to feed the future energy sector.

It is possible to exploit Li from ore and brine, resulting in high Li concentrations with low magnesium ratios, known as Li reserves. This method is limited, however, as the Earth’s total Li reserves stand at 22 Mt of Li, it is predicted that they may potentially be depleted by 2080, taking into account the growing demand for lithium batteries. Therefore, current methods are not suitable to support the rising demand for Li.

An alternative technique, electrochemical Li extraction from low-grade salt lake brine, powered by renewable energy,  has been suggested to sustainably increase Li production enough to meet demand. It is possible that low-grade salt lake brine, known as Li resources, could provide 89 Mt of Li. This is a four-fold increase in the resources that could be produced from extracting Li in the form of Li reserves. However, commercial extraction of Li resources is impossible via current technology with a low extraction rate and a relatively high production cost.

Several studies have proposed electrochemical Li adsorption/desorption methods that utilize Li intercalation materials with preferential host lattices. This suggested method can be a cost-effective and environmentally friendly strategy for extracting Li from brines.

If powered by off-grid, renewable energy, such as solar power, it becomes an even more attractive approach for two reasons. First, Li resources are most often located in remote, depopulated areas where grid power is expensive. Second, using renewable energy would increase the sustainability of the approach.

While much progress has been made in recent years in establishing Li-selective adsorption/desorption materials, a commercially viable method of electrochemical Li extraction from low-grade salt lake brine has remained elusive.

A study published in Chemical Engineering Journal has proposed a scalable spiral-microstructured electrochemical reactor (SMER) that can achieve Li extraction under harsh brine conditions. The method presents an opportunity to overcome the challenges of previous Li extraction from low-grade salt lake brine techniques, offering a novel method that may be sustainable and commercially scalable.

The study demonstrated that the SMER was operated at a Li extraction rate 5.6 times that of current state-of-the-art devices. The novel method extracted Li from Taijinar Lake. This location is more challenging to mine than most Li resources due to its low Li concentration and high magnesium-to-Li ratio. However, the solar-driven SMER operated stably at a Li extraction rate of 21.96 mg g−1 h−1. The researchers propose that the method could effectively be scaled up to produce Li2CO3 for batteries commercially.

A Future For Sustainable Li Extraction

The study represents the first important step in developing a sustainable Li extraction method from low-grade salt lake brine. The method will likely be implemented to help the world meet its growing Li demand.

In the ever-evolving landscape of sustainable energy, the demand for lithium is soaring to unprecedented heights.

As we strive to power our electric vehicles and store renewable energy, the challenges of lithium extraction have come to the forefront.

Current methods, limited by the Earth's finite lithium reserves, are no longer sufficient to meet the growing demand for lithium-ion batteries. However, amidst these challenges, a glimmer of hope emerges in the form of electrochemical Li extraction from low-grade salt lake brine, driven by renewable energy sources like solar power.

This innovative approach, exemplified by the scalable spiral-microstructured electrochemical reactor (SMER), offers a promising solution.

With a Li extraction rate 5.6 times that of current technologies, this method demonstrates that sustainable and commercially scalable lithium production is within reach.

As we continue our journey towards a cleaner, electrified future, these breakthroughs will pave the way for lithium's vital role in powering our world, all while preserving our planet for generations to come.

References and Further Reading

Coral Davenport, Lisa Friedman and Brad Plumer. (2022). California to Ban the Sale of New Gasoline Cars [online]. The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/24/climate/california-gas-cars-emissions.html

For a livable climate: Net-zero commitments must be backed by credible action [online]. United Nations. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/net-zero-coalition

Global demand for lithium batteries to leap five-fold by 2030- Li-Bridge [online]. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/global-demand-lithium-batteries-leap-five-fold-by-2030-li-bridge-2023-02-15/

Lithium Rush: How Can We Meet Growing Demand? [online]. International Energy Forum. Available at: https://www.ief.org/news/lithium-rush-how-can-we-meet-growing-demand

Rosie Frost. (2023). EU 2035 petrol and diesel car ban: Germany reaches deal on synthetic fuels [online]. EuroNews. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/green/2023/03/22/eu-to-ban-petrol-and-diesel-cars-by-2035-heres-why-some-countries-are-pushing-back

Zhang, X. et al. (2023) Solar-driven ultrafast lithium extraction from low-grade brine using microfluidics-mediated vortex in scalable electrochemical reactors. Chemical Engineering Journal, 454, p. 140074. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cej.2022.140074

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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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