Back in September, we discussed how Penn State researchers were using bacteria to turn wastewater into electricity.
Then in October, I mentioned how LanzaTech was recycling carbon emissions from steel mills to develop useable biofuel.
Now, Pleasanton, California-based, Simbol Materials, has found another way to turn a facility’s trash into treasure.
Let me explain…
Cutting Major Corners in the Lithium Production Process
Simbol Materials is a lithium producer with an interesting new process for extraction.
Currently, lithium producers pump mineral-rich brine from the beneath the Earth’s surface into giant pools. Then the brine evaporates in the sun for up to two years, leaving lithium chloride behind.
At that point, the concentrated lithium is taken to a separate location to be processed into a useable product.
So how is Simbol’s process different?
Well, instead of extracting its own brine, Simbol can siphon it directly from facilities that are throwing the stuff away: geothermal power plants.
You see, after geothermal plants use brine to generate steam, they usually just pump it back into the Earth. Instead of letting it go to waste, though, Simbol’s technology can redirect brine into its filtration system.
Even better, Simbol’s process doesn’t take two years to extract lithium. It takes only a few hours. According to the company’s website, it’s the world’s first project of its kind.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time…
Jumpstarting United States Lithium Production
As MIT’s Technology Review says, “In the late 1990s, the United States produced 75% of the world’s lithium carbonate. But now it makes only 5%. This is, in part, because U.S. manufacturers couldn’t compete with low-cost lithium chemicals from Chile.”
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But once Simbol gets its commercial lithium operations up and running, it promises to give U.S. production a massive boost.
The company’s first commercial plant – set to fire up sometime in 2012 – is expected to produce 16,000 tons of lithium each year. But the company plans to get more plants up and running in the near future. And by 2020, Simbol expects to pump out 48,000 tons.
To put that in perspective, the world’s largest lithium producer, Sociedad Quimica y Minera (NYSE: SQM), in Chile, currently produces 40,000 tons.
Better yet, Simbol’s CEO, Luka Erceg, believes the process can eventually be cost-competitive with Chilean miners. So the company could single-handedly put the United States back in the running for world’s top lithium producer.
Cutting costs isn’t the only benefit of using geothermal brine, though.
According to Erceg, “When we looked into the brine resource, what we found was not only lithium, but manganese, zinc and about half of the period table of elements.” And since manganese and zinc are also used in the development of batteries, the company is calling itself the “one-stop source for critical materials used in battery storage.”
And considering research from IHS iSuppli indicates that the market for lithium batteries will jump to $5.98 billion by 2020 – a whopping 8,205% increase over next year’s estimate – that’s not a bad position to be in.