With electric vehicle demand skyrocketing and the growing need for energy storage for renewables, lithium-ion batteries are one of the key technologies for our sustainable future. However, “how sustainable?” is the million dollar question. Between the supply chain issues of the past couple of years and inflation, the cost of key materials like lithium have also skyrocketed. Is there enough lithium? How do we extract it quickly and safely? And is there a better way to build batteries that can reduce the complexity of materials we need to build them? There’s a company bringing an interesting piece of nanotechnology to market that may have an answer to those questions.
Our reliance on batteries is increasing dramatically. Not just with EVs, but consumer electronics, and home and grid energy storage. When you look beyond the surface level eye candy of a new smartphone, or the electric vehicle you’ve been wanting to buy, there’s a lot of things that go into making those products that we don’t really think about. For many of us, we want to stop burning fossil fuels, so batteries seem like the no-brainer solution, but that increases the need for more mining of all the materials needed to make those batteries work. Right now, demand is far outstripping supply.
For instance, the demand for lithium in 2019 was around 263,000 metric tons, but it’s grown to around 559,000 metric tons today and is expected to hit 2.1 million by 2030.1 Some reports project even higher demand than that. Just this past year, costs of lithium have exploded past $450,000 Yuan (about $63,000) per ton.2 That’s where the company EnergyX comes into the picture. I had a chance to speak to Teague Egan, EnergyX’s CEO, at the beginning of 2021. At the time, they were moving from the laboratory scale and trying to start pilot testing. Before I get into how that went, we should talk a little bit about what sets their technology apart.
As a quick refresher, nanotechnology3 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.4
Within the realm of nanotech is something called a Metal Organic Framework, or MOF. 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.5 Teague built EnergyX from research at the University of Texas, and in Australia, Monash University and CSIRO. Dr. Huanting Wang’s MOF research at Monash University was combined with Dr. Bennie Freeman’s membrane research at the University of Texas. Here’s how Teague described the tech to me back in 2021.
“A 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 a 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
The reason this is such a big deal is because of how much more efficient this makes direct lithium extraction versus how we typically mine it today. Lithium comes from two primary sources: hard rock mining from ore, like spodumene, or from brine (salty water). Lithium is all over the place. You can find it in the ocean, but at such low levels it’s not feasible to extract it from seawater. That’s why it’s typically extracted from high concentration locations, like salt flats.
“They pump up the brine from subsurface, not too deep, it’s pretty shallow, and they put it into these huge evaporation ponds and they let the sun naturally evaporate the water, the H2O. And then the salts that are dissolved, one of the salts being lithium, others being magnesium, potassium, sodium, et cetera, precipitate or crash out. And this happens in a sequence where it takes about 18 months to go through all of these ponds, and finally you’re left with lithium that’s more concentrated in the solution at the end.” – Teague Eagan
We’re talking about pumping brine into acres and acres of evaporation ponds that take a year and a half to get what we want out of it. In Chile, there are brine ponds that are between 11,000 and 30,000 hectares (27,000-74,000 acres).6 In comparison, how much room is required for direct extraction?
“It’s a couple acres, 10 acres, something in that vicinity. Yeah, these are just warehouse facilities that you’re processing brine through, basically pumping it up, extracting the lithium, and then re-injecting it so you don’t disturb the water table.” -Teague Eagan
Instead of taking up tens of thousands of acres, you’d be down to some warehouses on less than a dozen. When it comes to time savings, you’re going from 18 months down to days and weeks. There’s really no comparison when it comes to size, speed, and recovery rate, but this is where I come back to their pilot testing. EnergyX learned a lot and had some big news come out of their pilot testing, which took place in Bolivia.
Bolivia holds about 15 percent of the world’s lithium supply (that’s about 21 million tons of the world’s 89 million ton supply).7 What EnergyX realized was that there’s no one size fits all solution. In Bolivia the membranes they had developed were extremely effective at magnesium separation, which is important for the Bolivian brine. However, when they started testing Argentinian brine, magnesium levels were very low and had other elements that needed to be addressed. To address this EnergyX has added some additional technologies to their portfolio, so they can mix and match to tailor to the localized needs.
“In addition to selective membranes, the second is solvent extraction. And solvent extraction is a widely used technology in metals and mining. It’s used with over a dozen different metals. It’s used for about 25% of the entire world’s copper production. But it’s just about making it applicable to lithium, which is the hard part. And then the third is ion sorption. You basically use a resin that absorbs the lithium, and then you need to strip the lithium out in the subsequent process. But each of those have their pros and cons depending on the brine and those three characteristics that I mentioned. There’s also other variables that are constraints in certain areas. One would be water. If you need a lot of fresh water to strip lithium from an ion sorption resin, that’s probably going to be hard in Argentina in these high desert salt flats that don’t have a lot of water availability. There’s a lot of different variables that you need to consider on a customer-by-customer basis when you’re trying to figure out an end-to-end solution of lithium extraction and refinery.” -Teague Eagan
Now that the first pilot is done, EnergyX isn’t slowing down, in fact they’re speeding up. They’re beginning work with five more partners to continue iterating and improving their technology.
“We are trying to deploy these next five pilots into the field as soon as possible. Hopefully that happens within the next six months, hopefully sooner. And then from there, we’re already building the next bigger demonstration units. It’s all about scaling this technology. The first pilot that we put in Bolivia was very small. It was just to prove that our technology could work over an extended period of time in real field operating conditions and not break down. Now these next units are 10 to 15 times the volume of brine that can process through them on an hourly basis, or I guess any basis, really. And then demonstration units in 2023 will be 15 times that. You’re looking at a 225 X scale from the first pilot to demonstration in 2023.” -Teague Eagan
They’re system is modular, so it can easily be expanded to meet whatever the needs are of their partner, so if you want 300 tons or 30,000 tons of lithium production, they’ll be able to scale to meet the need. All without having to take up tens of thousands of acres and producing it in a fraction of the time. But no matter how efficient your technology is, it always comes down to cost. On that front, they’ve got that nailed down too. Operational costs for current methods go from about $5,000/ton to about $2,500/ton with theirs.
Combine that with the current price of lithium and you can see how profitable lithium extraction can be. Even if lithium prices fall back down to reality from where they are today, cutting the operational costs in half is a very compelling reason to move towards direct extraction over brine pools.
But this wasn’t the big mic drop moment for me in my conversation with Teague. Last time I talked to him he had mentioned that they were looking at how their membrane technology could be applied to solid state batteries. Well, it sounds like things were much further along than I thought. They’re rethinking the synergy between the supply chain, battery chemistries, and how they’re manufactured.
“We don’t have plans to be a mass battery manufacturer, but we are innovating along this whole supply chain from, okay, first we need to extract the lithium from this other mixture of impurities, right? And what the product of that is is a lithium chloride solution still in liquid form. Then we need to take that lithium chloride and turn it into the battery grade either lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide in a salt form. And we’ve come up with innovative, cost efficient ways to do that that are better than the current methods. We’re saving in that section of the processing value chain. Then we take the lithium, and there’s already pretty standardized ways to put it into cathodes, but we also can take the lithium chloride and turn it directly into lithium metal, which is used as an anode. Now we have a new anode and a cathode, and we’re developing the separator, that is the thing that goes in between those two that creates a battery. We’re developing next generation lithium metal batteries and looking to partner with large cell makers to make these chemistries on a large scale for electric vehicles.” -Teague Eagan
In a nutshell, they’re developing a streamlined supply chain that could help make affordable lithium metal batteries, which is playing in the same arena as companies like Quantumscape, Solid Power and others. If you’re wondering about EnergyX’s qualifications for battery research and development, well, they’ve tapped into a pretty impressive roster that goes back to Nobel Prize winner, John B. Goodenough, who’s one of the father’s of lithium ion batteries. Well, EnergyX has tapped into his team.
“Last time we talked to you, had mentioned how you were… You had conversation with John B. Goodenough and his team. Is this basically the culmination of those conversations and those researchers? Is that what led to this?” -Matt Ferrell
“His whole team works for us. EnergyX battery team is the former John Goodenough, University of Texas battery team…” -Teague Eagan
“…pretty much anybody that was working in his lab at University of Texas now works at EnergyX. And our VP of battery technology is a gentleman named Dr. Nick Grundish, who is his last PhD student, and then we have several of his postdocs. And there’s been a huge knowledge transfer over from what he was doing to what’s happening here at EnergyX.” -Teague Eagan
They’ve gone from testing coin cells to multi-layer pouch cells for their design.
“Right now we’re at 10 layer, one amp hour lithium metal pouch cells that have cycled over 100 times. Getting up to 300 is really where we start commercial discussions. And if you have 800 plus cycle lithium metal pouch cell that has between 400 and 500 watt hours per kilogram, it’s game over.”
In case you couldn’t tell, EnergyX has some grand ambitions and Teague is very passionate about their mission and ability to pull it off. Given their successful pilot plant results and their deep bench of talent on battery research and development, I’m really excited to keep following EnergyX’s development in the coming years. If you’d like to see my full interview with Teague, you can hop over to my other YouTube channel, which is the Still TBD Podcast, so you can listen to it on the go too.
- “Projection of worldwide lithium demand from 2019 to 2030” ↩
- “Lithium Prices Putting EV Producers Under Pressure” ↩
- “What Is Nanotechnology?” ↩
- “How Big is a Nanometer?” ↩
- “What is a MOF (metal organic framework)?” ↩
- “Lithium Chile, a perfect storm” ↩
- “Legendary lithium riches from Bolivia’s salt flats may still just be a mirage” ↩