Lithium is a key component of rechargeable batteries, and developing domestic supply is seen as an important step in a broad push for the U.S. to transition to alternative energy sources. In February, the Biden administration unveiled plans to invest $2.9 billion to boost production of advanced batteries and strengthen the battery supply chain in the U.S., including the development of domestic supplies of lithium. Last month President Biden also invoked the Defense Protection Act to increase production of battery metals.
But newer, still-experimental lithium production and extraction methods that could help increase supplies, while attracting investors for their potential to speed up production and reduce the environmental impact compared with most current lithium-extraction methods, are so far unproven at large scale.
Current methods of lithium production mostly involve extracting the lightweight metal from hard rock or pumping the salty brines that contain lithium out of the ground into vast ponds where evaporation separates it from other elements. Mining companies in Chile have used this environmentally hazardous practice for decades. It takes about 18 months to two years to produce lithium from a brine using ponds and several years to build such projects.
The new methods, known collectively as direct lithium extraction, or DLE, have been shown to be faster than traditional methods and more efficient. While traditional methods yield about 40% to 50% of the lithium present in a mined resource, processes using DLE can extract 75% to 90%, companies behind the technologies say. Many DLE technologies use a chemical process or other methods to isolate lithium.
That means more lithium can be produced and made commercially available more quickly—at a time when demand for lithium is sending prices to all-time highs, while analysts are projecting shortages that could slow production of electric cars.
In Nevada, where the ground is rich with lithium brines, a wave of lithium prospectors have taken out claims for potential projects in the past year. Many conventional lithium-extraction efforts, however, face opposition from environmentalists and permitting delays.
The question is whether DLE is ready to make a major difference. Many DLE technologies that work well in a laboratory often run into trouble in the field, experts say. Many of the technologies would likely still require large amounts of water and power to run the devices on a large scale.
DLE is currently being commercially used only by the Philadelphia-based lithium miner and processor Livent Corp. alongside its other brine-extraction processes in Argentina, and by companies in China. The DLE component of Livent’s Argentina project is small and isn’t producing lithium at a scale that would indicate a technological breakthrough, analysts say. And experts say there isn’t enough transparency about the DLE technology being used in China to know how successful it is.