Development of the technology from the Monash University startup has been led by Professor Huanting Wang, an Australian Laureate Fellow and the Director of the ARC Research Hub for Energy-efficient Separation at Monash University's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
“Current lithium extraction methods involve either roasting hard rock at high temperature and dissolving it with hot sulfuric acid, or evaporating brines in a solar pond, both of which use chemicals to precipitate lithium out. It is time consuming, disruptive, expensive and wasteful. My research in nanostructure membranes is all about efficiency and ingenuity to make the most of this limited mineral resource,” Professor Wang said in a statement.
Recognising the potential of this innovation, Monash Engineering's Dr Zhouyou (Emily) Wang has been awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Early Career Industry Fellowship to further develop and commercialise the novel membrane-based technology.
“Even though seawater is a brine, the concentration of lithium is too low for cost effective extraction, but we are already thinking about designing the next generation of membranes to improve lithium extraction, so maybe in the future we can extract lithium from new sources,” said Dr Wang.
Demand for lithium is growing due to its global use in large-scale batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage. By 2030 the market for lithium is predicted to be worth $22.6bn compared to $7bn in 2022. To meet this exponential growth, lithium supply is projected to increase up to 800 per cent or approximately one million tonnes per annum by 2050.
The extraction of lithium from mineral deposits such as Spodumene, Pegmatite, and Jadarite requires industrial processing to extract the small percentage of contained lithium. The coexistence of lithium alongside high concentrations of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium ions poses challenges to its recovery from brine.
Typically, a combination of evaporation, precipitation, and chemical treatments is employed to concentrate and separate lithium ions from these competing ions. To meet the escalating global demand for lithium, Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technologies are required, and several teams globally are pursuing novel solutions.
“ElectraLith's breakthrough approach employs a novel lithium-ion selective membrane in combination with well-established industrial electrodialysis systems utilised in production,” a company spokesperson said.
“Using electro-membrane technology in extraction and refining exploits the exceptional mobility of lithium ions, outperforming conventional pressure-driven membrane technologies like reverse osmosis. Again, such membrane processes are well established and proven at scale, such as in seawater desalination.”
The company added that ElectraLith's technology, driven by electrical potential, enables the rapid concentration of lithium from trace levels to commercially desired quantities, meeting the needs of lithium battery mineral producers. Additionally, the electrochemical process facilitates the direct production of lithium hydroxide, a critical battery mineral.
“Contrasting conventional Direct Lithium Extraction systems reliant on chemical precipitation, pH adjustments, or organic solvents, ElectraLith's electro-membrane technology relies solely on electricity, preferably sourced from renewable alternatives such as solar or geothermal energy, abundant in the areas where these resources are extracted,” the spokesperson said. “ElectraLith seeks to significantly speed up the industrial-scale lithium extraction and refining which is presently dependent on the concentration of brines - over months to years - in evaporation ponds and necessarily employs chemical precipitation.”