Electric cars produced nowadays use lithium ion batteries. As this market will rise over the next few years, so will the lithium demand, ultimately driving new extraction technologies for the industry to keep pace with the demand and to lower the prices.
While some 12 years ago the U.S. had been producing 75 percent of the world’s lithium carbonate, it now only accounts for 5 percent, since it could not compete with Chile and Australia, who took the lead. The same goes with manganese, that the U.S. currently doesn’t produce at all.
The odds could be favoring the U.S. in the lithium extraction industry, since CA-based startup Simbol Materials announced they have a technology that could extract lithium from geothermal wells cheaply, thus moving the balance to locally-produced lithium, instead of imported.
In fact, Simbol already uses their technology to purify low-grade lithium produced by other manufacturers and sells more expensive high-grade lithium to the local market, expecting to go international by 2012.
Simbol’s lithium extraction process is schematically simple. Usually, at geothermal power plants, brine is injected into the crust and then extracted at high pressures and temperatures and used to drive steam turbines. The brine that comes back from the ground contains many elements among which there’s lithium, manganese and zinc, but it regularly gets recycled after only the heat is extracted from it.
This is where Simbol’s proprietary technology comes in. Their machinery is able to extract lithium carbonate within hours, by using the assets and patents they bought from a bankrupt Canadian company. Not only their system is fast, but the lithium carbonate it produces has the highest quality in the world. They are also hoping to compete even with the lowest-priced Chilean lithium suppliers at $1,500 per ton.
The company already has a prototype extraction plant that filters 20 gallons per minute, but the Salton Sea plant they will build next year will be able to produce some 16,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year, approaching the world’s third producer in terms of quantity. If everything goes as planned, the production capacity installed by 2020 will outstrip demand, making lithium and lithium ion batteries much cheaper than today.