The director of a Canadian-listed company that has developed a new system for extracting lithium, a mineral critical to the electrification of the global economy, says he has shown he can harness smaller concentrations of the substance with minimal environmental disturbance.
International Battery Metals Ltd. IBAT-CN said Tuesday that an independent engineering review concluded that the company’s mobile, modular lithium extraction plant obtains more than 65 percent of its lithium from brine, which is saline groundwater enriched with dissolved lithium. It also recycles and reuses 94 percent of the water in the process, according to a report from SLR Consulting Ltd.
Britain-based SLR conducted its review at International Battery Metals’ commercial-scale modular plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which has been testing the flow of lithium-bearing brine since May. A big benefit of the technology, the company says, is its portability in a world where demand for the ore is skyrocketing.
The technology was developed by company president and CEO John Burba, a Texan who worked on extraction projects in North and South America and patented numerous lithium-related technologies for four decades.
“This is a commercial-scale plant. This is not a pilot plant. It’s not a toy. It’s not a bank demo thing. It’s the real deal. We built it in 10 months. We set it up in 10 days with nine people. We have operated and demonstrated everything through SLR,” said Dr. Burba in an interview.
“Because of the modularity, we can lift this thing up, put it on trucks, and transport it to wherever we want to transport it.”
According to the International Energy Agency. Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk recently told Texas that his electric vehicle company is considering building a lithium processing plant in the state as a way to diversify supplies, most of which it gets from China.
Lithium can be extracted from brine and hard rock. The IEA noted that extraction sites are vulnerable to increasing climate risks. More than half of world production is concentrated in areas with water scarcity. This has highlighted recycling and new extraction technologies.
In one of the world’s largest deposits, in Chile’s Atacama Desert, brine is pumped into massive retention ponds, where it can take years to separate the lithium through evaporation. This puts enormous pressure on the region’s limited water resources and damages wetlands.
International Battery Metals said the absorbent in its process removes lithium but leaves behind other natural elements so the brine can be reintroduced into the environment.
“They have created an impressive mess in the Atacama, and it will take a long time, if at all, for that place to recover. So we are avoiding the problem from the beginning,” said Dr. Burba. “We are not going to extract large amounts of fresh water from the resource. The other thing is that our system is designed for a simple reinjection of the brine in the resource”.
He said SLR agreed with the company that modular technology would allow it to access a more diverse range of brine resources around the world, including smaller concentrations. These include sites in the United States that are currently considered uneconomical using today’s commonly used technology.
The plant has the capacity to produce 5,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent per year from a brine with a lithium concentration of 1,800 parts per million. It can be scaled up to 20,000 tons per year, International Battery Metals said. Extraction rates were higher than with other methods currently used, on average, the review found.
The company’s current plans include building, owning and operating the plants, largely because it wants to protect intellectual property. It could be open to other commercial arrangements in the future. “For a while we want to remain proprietary,” Dr. Burba said.