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⚡ Scaling Lithium Supply

My Climate Journey

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck / Unsplash

Host: Jason Jacobs
Guest: Dave Snydacker | Founder & CEO | Lilac Solutions
Category: ⚡ Renewable Energy

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[4:16] “Lilac Solutions is a lithium extraction technology company. We've developed a new process to increase production of lithium raw materials to supply the battery industry and electric vehicle manufacturers.”

[9:03] “I started getting these repeated questions about the battery supply chain. People would say, okay, so you're going to get us off of oil and onto lithium, but aren't we just going to trade the oil cartel for a new lithium cartel? Or they'd ask, is it really enough lithium? Are we going to run out of lithium? And initially, I would […] laugh and say, […] any economist will tell you that if prices go up, new supply will come on, and the problem will be fixed, so don't worry about it. But then I started to try to answer the question a bit more detailed than that and realized there were way more question marks than there were answers. And that lithium supply in particular, was a huge challenge for the electric vehicle industry and a big opportunity. And so started working in lithium extraction.

[10:16] “The challenges [of the lithium supply chain] were twofold. First, the total lithium reserves, [which] are the body of raw material in the earth that are economically feasible. And there were only maybe 5 or 10 major deposits globally that were capable of producing lithium economically. […] [That] was not going to be enough to build a global EV supply chain. So […] the size of the reserve was number one. And then number two, there were some new resources […] spread across a larger number of sites that were interesting, but the technology needed to upgrade those speculative resources into economic reserves was lacking. And the work that had been done to develop technology for that purpose was pretty narrow and had not been very fruitful. So it was on the resource side and on the production technologies, where I saw some serious concerns and great opportunity.

[12:46] “There are only 5 or 10 interesting [lithium] sites and they were divided into two different categories. So the categories were brine resources, which are saltwater deposits, and that's where Lilac focuses. The other category is hard rock ores, which looks more like a conventional mining project. And about 80% of the world's lithium resource is in the brines. But when you look at new production, over the last 10 years, 80% of that has been from hard rock. So there was an imbalance between where most of the resource was and where most new production was coming from. And that really highlighted the challenge.”

[13:44] “What does it take to bring those resources into production? On the brine side, you need a high grade of lithium and you need the ability to permit very large evaporation ponds. Evaporation ponds are the technology used to produce lithium from brine resources today. You basically pump the naturally occurring salt water up from underground, spill it into a long series of evaporation ponds, that can be up to 10 kilometers across. And then over a course of up to two years that brine is slowly concentrated, and you remove all the low value salts, which is 99.9% of the brine typically, […] and then finally, you end up with a concentrated lithium chloride solution at the very end. But a lot of the lithium gets lost in the process. And it's a process which is very difficult to permit and very slow to bring online. And then limited to that small number of resources. So there were all those reasons that brine projects weren't able to quickly ramp production in order to meet demand for electric cars. And so those brine resources have been losing market share.”

[16:06] “The landscape I always envision as a pyramid. […] For people who have studied oil and gas, or mineral resources, there's this classic pyramid, where at the top, you have a small number of sites with a very high grade resource. And as you go down the base of the pyramid, you get to lower concentrations of lithium, but a much larger resource base with more sites that can be developed. And so outside of the existing production, which was 3 or 4 brine projects, there were dozens of sites with large amounts of lithium, but at a lower concentration, where conventional technology would not be applicable. And it's those sites that seemed like the frontier for lithium. That was going to be the answer to how we solve this problem and brought online the new production needed for electric vehicles.”

[17:21] “The primary problem with conventional technology was its inability to ramp production. And that's related to its limitation to high grade resources. The fact that you can't use it at many new projects. And it's also related to the low recoveries. So most of the lithium that they pump out of the ground is not recovered. And so that was also a challenge for that technology.”

[18:08] “The big moment for me was realizing there was a category of technology called ion exchange, which could use oxide materials to extract lithium. And my PhD was focused on designing new oxide materials to absorb and release lithium in a battery. That's how a battery works. You have these oxide powders in the cathode that absorb and release lithium every time you charge and discharge. And what I realized is I could use that concept and apply it to a new mining process for extracting lithium from the salt water deposits. And that was really the moment where I realized that my skill set could actually make a big impact on lithium production.”

[41:28] “Lithium production today is already much, much better for the global environment, in terms of CO2, as compared to gasoline. There are some local impacts, though, and those local impacts are important. It is extremely important that local communities feel respected, consulted and feel like they are benefiting from development in their area, in their community. So it's important that when projects are developed, they have a limited impact on land and water. And that's, that's front of mind for us, as we look at these projects. The major environmental benefit for Lilac is the reduction in the physical footprint at the surface. So today, the evaporation ponds require up to approximately 10,000 acres, whereas our projects are 10s of acres.

Rating: ⚡⚡⚡

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify (Original Title: "Dave Snydacker, Founder & CEO of Lilac Solutions")
🕰️ 51 min | 🗓️ 11/22/2021
✅ Time saved: 49 min

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