From smartphones and laptops to the rapidly growing EV market, we need an incredible amount of lithium ion batteries to make it all work. Which highlights a little problem. Are there enough materials to make them? Materials like lithium are difficult and time consuming to extract and can have a major impact on the environment. Can nanotechnology solve our lithium extraction and mining problem? And maybe even help with solid state batteries?

For EV enthusiasts like myself, we can sometimes get caught up in the benefits of going electric. You’re no longer burning fossil fuels to operate your car. Or you have solar on your home and are storing excess energy in a home battery for later use. It’s all great, right? Well, that’s precisely the problem … demand is outstripping supply. Our need for energy storage is growing dramatically.

The issue

Lithium-ion battery demand is expected to increase more than 10 fold by 2029 and lithium supply is expected to triple by 2025.1 2 That increased demand puts pressure on the entire supply chain for battery production, which is causing a new gold rush, but this time for materials like lithium and nickel. I recently had a chance to talk to Teague Egan, the CEO of a small company that’s looking to make a big difference by using some fascinating nanotechnology. He put the scale of the demand between what we’ve seen with consumer electronics to where it’s going really well.

“…To put that into perspective, it takes 10,000 iPhones to build one car battery, right?” “So if you’re talking about producing a million cars, which is essentially happening right now, we’re producing more than that per year, about 2 million, that’s the equivalent of 10 billion iPhones, right?” “And this is the beginning. Mercedes, BMW, makes an electric car, but GMC, Ford, Volkswagen, everybody is like, ‘We’re coming.’ Now we’re talking about a trillion iPhones worth of batteries.” -Teague Egan

That really puts in perspective where things are going and the scale needed to supply our battery addiction. While mining for lithium, nickel and other materials for batteries may feel like we’re just trading drilling for oil with digging for metals and salts, there’s a big difference. Once you drill and then burn fossil fuels, they’re gone forever. Dig up lithium, nickel, or aluminum for a battery and you can recharge it thousands of times … and even recycle it for use in new batteries. So it’s already a big step in the right direction, but there’s still big improvements we can make on getting it out of the ground.

Today there are two basic ways we get lithium. Mining from ore, which is known as spodumene, or using brine salt pools for lithium extraction.

“There’s two ways to produce lithium. And one way actually is kind of lithium mining. What the average consumer would think of as a big open pit kind of copper mining scenario. In Australia, that is the typical way that they mine for lithium. The other way is extracting lithium from salt brine. Ocean water is 3% salinity. The brines that we extract the lithium from is 30% salinity.” “They pump up this really salty water from a subsurface, and they put it into these massive evaporation ponds that are literally tens of square miles big, bigger than the City of Manhattan. And they let the sun evaporate the 70% H2O, the water part. And then the salts precipitate out one by one. And they have a series of these ponds because once a salt precipitates, they move all of the brine to the next pond, and then scoop out the salt from the first one. And then the second salt precipitates out. And it goes down the system to the end where the lithium is concentrated up enough that they can crystallize it and have 99.9% pure lithium.” -Teague Egan

Most of this is happening in a handful of countries like Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and China.3 2 And the brine extraction method makes up about 70% of the world’s lithium. In Latin America you’re talking about 750 tons of brine.4 5 But the craziest part of the brine method is that it can take between 6 – 24 months to produce the final product and they only recover about 30% of the lithium. Not to mention that it’s a water intensive process because you’re pulling water from below the surface and using chemical processes. Not only can this lead to chemicals getting back into the groundwater, but it can reduce the amount of water available for others in the area.6

A solution

So what do we do? Nanotechnology to the rescue! Seriously though, I’ve talked a lot about different forms of nanotechnology and how it’s impacting solar and energy storage, and this is another great example of how it’s being applied to the mining industry.

As a quick refresher, nanotechnology refers to our ability to study and engineer technologies at a nanoscale, which is the range from 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter … or one millionth of a millimeter. For a sense of scale a human hair is around 75,000 nanometers wide.1

Within the realm of nanotech is something called a Metal Organic Framework, or MOF. Teague’s company, EnergyX, is specializing in using MOFs for lithium extraction.

“An MOF is a nanoparticle that we discovered can achieve these incredible separations. They have very small pore sizes and what they are is they’re metal nodes like zirconium or aluminum. These are metals on the periodic table that are connected by organic linkers, like a carbon linker that connects these metal nodes. And they have very high internal surface areas. And they have very small pore sizes where a lithium can pass through, but a larger divalent ion like a magnesium or calcium is rejected because it can’t pass through and they work in two ways. One is through this size sieving effect that I just described. The other is through kind of an electrochemical affinity between the metal node and the passing ion. Like lithium wants to pass through, and has a very good transport rate where some of the other ones don’t want to pass through and are flushed out to the side.” -Teague Egan

MOFs were pioneered in the late 1990’s by Prof. Omar Yaghi at UC Berkeley. Since then researchers have discovered more than 90,000 different MOF structures and that number is continuing to grow.7 Teague built EnergyX from research at the University of Texas, and in Australia, Monash University and CSRO. Dr. Huanting Wang’s MOF research at Monash University was combined with Dr. Bennie Freeman’s membrane research at the University of Texas.

So how does EnergyX’s use of MOFs compare to the mining industry’s normal approach?

“They only recover about 30 to 50% of the available lithium because it’s an inexact science, you’re moving millions of tons of brine from pond to pond letting the sun evaporate, letting the salt precipitate, and lithium ends up co-precipitating with magnesium. And this is a huge problem because you need the lithium to be 99.9% pure. You can’t have any magnesium.” “They need to concentrate it up to a pretty high level in order to final process it into the lithium. And they lose all this lithium during the pond system, during the 18 months.” “70% loss is unfathomable in any other industry. That was the main problem that we wanted to address.” -Teague Egan

So how does a 90% recovery rate sound in comparison? It’s not just more efficient at extraction, but it’s very flexible in how you can integrate it into existing mining infrastructure.

“The way that our generation one works is that we go right before that lithium magnesium coprecipitation, which is about three ponds into the sequence, put our membranes that separate the lithium from the magnesium so we don’t lose any lithium.” “You need to provide value to your customer. Totally replacing the ponds does not provide value at this point. Our generation one provides value that they want and need. And once we have maximized the capacity of the ponds and they can’t produce any more lithium out of the ponds and demand is still growing and they want to bring on new capacity, then we can introduce our generation two, which is a full, complete system that doesn’t need the ponds.” -Teague Egan

Taking the approach of layering in this technology into existing processes reduces the capital expense of setting it up, and it doesn’t disrupt the costly infrastructure that’s already there. Companies will get a huge uptick in efficiency now and still scale down the road without having to build out more brine pools … eventually … hopefully without any.

One thing that’s always fascinated me about technologies and breakthroughs like graphene, MOFs, you name it, is how long it seems to take for these breakthroughs to come to market. I didn’t used to understand the difficulty going from lab to product, but the more of these videos I make and the more people I talk to, it’s become very clear to me that’s it’s crazy difficult to make that jump. I no longer ask, “where’s my flying car?” Teague’s been experiencing that first hand.

“Oh man, when you say I’m experiencing it first hand, you are spot on. When I read that first paper, this is my first rodeo, I like doing this kind of stuff. I read that first paper. I said, “This is ready to go, let’s sign up the biggest customers, we’ll be commercial at one year.” “It’s a painful process, discovering that small thing on an academic level that is 1 millionth the … when we first discovered that metal organic frameworks could do these separations with one metal organic framework. We literally etched a pore into a solid membrane that had no other holes and grew one metal-organic framework in one pore and witnessed that it was allowing lithium through and not magnesium.” “And then the paper comes out and it’s metal-organic frameworks, the next miracle material. And they’re really talking about one, which is … I think a human hair is 200 microns or something. These are a thousandth the size of a human hair. And so to scale that up into something where you have millions of metal-organic frameworks and millions of square meters of membrane, it’s a hard process, right?” -Teague Egan

The future

But EnergyX is doing it. They’re pushing to make this technology a reality, which has so much potential for future variations … it goes way beyond lithium.

“The other kind of cool thing about this is that, although lithium is our first targeted material that we kind of tune and customize these MOF for, they’re infinitely customizable. So you can add little pendant groups or different types of linkers that shrink the hole, or create different affinities and do different types of separations. One separation that we saw other than lithium was the separation fluorine and chlorine. And this happens to be a very important separation in the country of India, their water infrastructure. They have really high amounts of fluoride and fluorine, and that is detrimental for the bones. And people are drinking these and getting all sorts of bone disease and bone decay. And if you can have a filter, a filtration system except that lets the water and chloride pass through and stop the fluorine, that’s important.” -Teague Egan

“So basically this could be evolved into any number of other technologies like desalination plants, water purification.” -Matt Ferrell

“Exactly.” -Teague Egan

“There’s a lot of potential for taking this technology and scaling it beyond just lithium extraction.” -Matt Ferrell

“Huge potential. We’re focused on lithium, but you can think about the agricultural industry, pharmaceutical industry, water infrastructure industry.” -Teague Egan

And one of the additional uses for MOFs is something that Teague brought up in our conversation, and one that I’m pretty passionate about … solid state batteries.

“…if we have this solid membrane that is separating and transporting lithium through it with such high efficiency, I wonder how using that same membrane in a battery would work because in a battery architecture, you have your anode and you have your cathode, and then you have a separator, which is right now, a liquid state electrolyte.” “And it just so happens that at the University of Texas, Dr. John Goodenough is in the lab right next door to Bennie Freeman. So I said what better person to try this hypothesis than one of the top battery researchers in the world. We were able to partner with his lab and we work with some of his PhD students. We’re going through iterations of tweaking it and figuring out some things that could make our membrane into a very high quality, solid state electrolyte.” -Teague Egan

Clearly, it’s very early days in the research aspect of that, but it’s another great example of where this technology could go. We’re still in the early days of nanotechnologies like graphene and MOFs, but they are shaping up to have a big impact on EVs, renewable energy, energy storage, and mining.

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Matt Ferrell
Matt Ferrell lives in the Boston area and is a UI/UX designer by trade, but has always been obsessed by technology and how it works. In 2018 he started his YouTube channel, Undecided with Matt Ferrell, where he explores sustainable and smart technologies like EVs, solar panels, and smart homes.

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