Will New Technologies Replace Lithium Brine Solar Evaporation Ponds?

Will New Technologies Replace Lithium Brine Solar Evaporation Ponds?

I think it’s a question of when, not if, cutting-edge technologies will replace the need for large new solar evaporation ponds. These ponds, in operation for decades, reportedly have lithium recovery rates of about 40%-60%, so about half of the water pumped in evaporates into thin air (over 12-24 months). Not ideal for local populations in arid climates. I imagine that existing evaporation ponds will probably be allowed to operate for quite some time, but new ponds may not be needed. Why?

There are dozens of lab-scale stage technologies and (far fewer) pilot plants, that claim extracting and/or processing lithium directly from brines without the need for water-intensive, large footprint solar evaporation ponds. Some of the names may be familiar; MGX Minerals, International Battery Metals, Eramet, Lepidico, IBC Advanced Technologies, Tenova Advanced Technologies, POSCO, Lithium Australia, Lilac Solutions. Importantly, these companies’ technologies (some have lithium resources as well) boast stated recoveries (yields) far greater than that of conventional ponds.  

Simply put, a better mousetrap is being developed — in fact, multiple mousetraps — that will simplify the lithium brine extraction process, including cutting the time to recover lithium from a year or more to a matter of days.

Make no mistake, this sea change in the next decade’s business. As mentioned, the new technologies are mostly at lab-scale, but the writing is on the wall. Even in Chile, host to the largest evaporation ponds on the planet, water challenges have recently been raised in areas where both Albemarle & SQM have their giant ponds.

Again, this sea change won’t happen overnight, but I think it’s the medium-term future of brine extraction due to much higher recoveries, shorter production cycles, and far less wasting of water (much of the water used in the technologies can be recycled). Once a successful operation or two or three is up and running, every local community will want to pursue these methodologies. 

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Disclosure: I have no prior or existing relationship with any company mentioned in this article. I do not own the shares of any company mentioned.

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Mark Borkowski 3 months ago Contributor's comment

Peter Epstein writes an excellent article on Lithium brines for solar use. Chile and Argentina, Australia, Zimbabwbe and recently a discovered large desposit in Wyoming in the United States represent the largest producers of Lithium. Not surprisingly, and an unknown fact is that Chinese interests have tied up many of these said deposits. Their focus on electronics and battery manufacturing have created a race to mine Lithium. Many of the governments have ignored the serious environmental impacts of Lithium mining. Mining of Lithium is a complex process and is expensive. The new technologies highlighted in Mr. Espstein's article are being closely watched by investors of all stripes. Putting forward this list was most useful and interesting.