The Minerals Manhattan Project

Unconventional: Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) and the Future, ft. Alex Grant

April 23, 2020 Emily Hersh Season 1 Episode 5
The Minerals Manhattan Project
Unconventional: Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) and the Future, ft. Alex Grant
Show Notes

One of the bright young minds in the lithium extraction space gets into the nitty gritty of a hot technology topic: Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) from lithium bearing brines.

Alex gets into how the DLE vs conventional debate is a myth, as there is no such thing as a "cut and paste" evaporation process that works across all lithium brines. In 2020, the case to separate the lithium directly from the brine is stronger than ever as lithium demand is growing at 15-20% per year, while the other byproducts are growing at GDP rates.

Alex uses his philosophy degree to walk us through the five different processes or technologies that make up a DLE toolkit, and how they work:

  • Adsorption
  • Ion Exchange
  • Solvent Extraction
  • Membranes
  • Electrochemical 

We discuss the addition of other reagents to brines, and the "golden rule" of DLE: you're not allowed to add any chemical or reagent that wasn't there before or it becomes contamination. In the same vein of conversation, we address how re-injection of brine could affect dilution and future recovery rates.

Alex shares how adapting geological techniques from the oil and gas industry can help improve modeling the behavior of brine resources over time, taking into account extraction and re-injection.

One of Alex's major touch points is that DLE is not new - FMC and Livent have been using an adsorptive DLE process for the better part of two decades.  Alex gets into what is new - but how the process of going from the lab to scale requires time and is not straightforward.

The most important takeaway is that DLE processes are very project or brine specific - and the growth in the community of new technologies that are under development has created an innovative ecosystem.

Emily takes Alex on a trip down memory lane to the Qinghai brine story that was all the rage in 2018, and whether or not the lithium carbonate produced was lower quality and why. How much of quality is determined by brine feedstock vs. extraction technology? And how does dependence on brine quality change as your DLE toolkit becomes more developed.

Alex explains how size still matters with DLE, and that low grade and small resources are still not interesting projects despite the technology. DLE makes access to infrastructure more important as processes require additional energy and reagents.

We finish off by considering how COVID19 could promote more local supply chains, as well as unlock creativity in technology and help develop a nuanced approach to building our future.