At CleanTechnica, we introduce new and often groundbreaking technologies that can move our world toward zero emissions. Many of our article ideas emerge from constituents within the cleantech world who want to share their insights and innovations to inform our readership. So, when we received the opportunity to review the lithium hydroxide extraction process from Vulcan Energy Zero Carbon through their recent pre-feasibility study, we were intrigued.
In December, 2020, the new EU promulgated Battery Regulations, which Maroš Šefčovič , the European Commission VP, remarks “will have an immediate impact on the market, which up until now has been driven only by price.”
- Responsible sourcing: New mandatory procedures to ensure sustainable and ethical sourcing of raw materials such as lithium.
- CO2 footprint: All batteries sold in Europe must declare their carbon footprint. This will come in 3-step approach: 1: Declaration (2024), 2: Classification (2026), 3: Threshold (2027). Batteries with the highest carbon footprint will be banned in Europe.
- Traceability: All raw materials used in batteries to be procured according to OECD recognized guidelines for sustainable sourcing. Thanks to blockchain technology, each
battery will have a digital passport tracking all components upstream.
Thierry Breton, EU commissioner, adds, “We are 100% dependent on lithium imports. The EU, if finding the right environmental approach, will be self-sufficient in a few years, using its resources.”
The Australian exploration company Vulcan Energy Resources Ltd. hopes to become one of the leading suppliers of battery grade lithium hydroxide, a material central to vehicle electrification strategies of the automotive industry. With a CO2 footprint of “zero,” the project is part of a strong movement marking the beginning of the battery industry decarbonization.
The energy density (or specific energy, energy per mass) of lithium hydroxide exceeds that of lithium carbonate. According to Alster Research, LiOH production from hard rock deposits will have increased tenfold by 2025 and will account for 80% of lithium production from hard rock deposits (2019: 35%). LiOH production from brine is forecast to treble, meaning that its share of lithium production from brine will remain at 20%.
In April, Vulcan announced that its first pilot plant has been operating, using live geothermal brine from existing wells for Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) and brine chemistry test work. Vulcan is collaborating with DuPont Water Solutions to test DLE solutions similar to commercially mature products already used in lithium industry.
Vulcan’s operations of extraction in the lithium-rich geothermal brine of the Upper Rhine Valley in southern Germany and of upgrading lithium to a high purity hydroxide (LiOH) will be combined with the production of hydrogeothermal energy (renewable electricity). The Vulcan project uses direct lithium extraction to remove the lithium from the brine after energy has been extracted, then to pump all of the water and other salts in the brine back underground. It uses little or no fossil fuels to power their operations.
As such, Vulcan’s Zero Carbon Lithium Project is a portfolio of projects than just one single project. It combines operations of extraction in the lithium-rich geothermal brine, of upgrading lithium to a high purity hydroxide (LiOH), and the production of hydrogeothermal energy (renewable electricity). Thermal water is used as energy source, and, thus, the extraction of lithium contained in the brine runs without polluting the environment with emissions, waste material, or toxic substances.
Open pit hard rock mines for lithium scar the landscape. Once it is mined, the rock has to be roasted with fossil fuels to produce lithium hydroxide. This is very CO2-intensive. In contrast, Vulcan’s DLE energy focus draws on naturally occurring, renewable geothermal energy to power the lithium extraction process and create a renewable energy by-product. This uses no fossil fuels, requires very little water, and has a tiny land footprint.
Through wells into the deep sub-surface, hot, lithium-rich brine from the project area is pumped to the surface.
- Renewable heat derived from geothermal brine drives the lithium extraction process, with no fossil fuel consumption.
- A surplus of renewable energy is produced, decarbonizing the grid.
- Unique, premium, battery-quality hydroxide product for EVs results, with a zero carbon footprint.
- The spent brine gets re-injected in a closed-loop cycle.
The direct lithium hydroxide extraction process will result in reduced water usage and smaller overall environmental footprint compared to traditional, evaporative methods used by producers in South America.
Use of renewable power and heat from geothermal brine would make producers such as Vulcan the lowest CO2-footprint supplier of lithium hydroxide for electric vehicles in the world, according to Pell, et al.
- In geothermal lithium projects like Vulcan’s, direct lithium hydroxide extraction sources brine without evaporating the water from the brine, while an energy plant is used to extract the heat from the brine to produce power.
- Second, in evaporative processes, the brine comes from shallow aquifers (~10m deep), and the energy used to evaporate the water from the brine comes from the sun. In geothermal lithium brines, the lithium and energy come from deep aquifers (~2km deep) co-packaged in the same brine.
Pell, et al note that, in the lithium context, the difference between geothermal lithium and evaporative process-produced lithium chemicals is stark because of the efficiency of energy consumption in the processes.
“Obviating the need to evaporate the water from the brine, geothermal lithium products may net consume ~100x less energy than evaporative processes. Meanwhile, exporting low CO2 power to the grid while evaporative processes do not produce any power as a co-product. Combining the energy intensity of the different energy sources on the Earth’s surface and the differences in water evaporation requirements for evaporation ponds and DLE projects, we find that geothermal lithium projects could require ~10,000x less physical footprint than evaporative projects to produce the same amount of lithium chemical.”
The Salton Sea in California and the Upper Rhine Valley of France & Germany are the 2 most well-known geothermal lithium brinefields. Geothermal lithium projects like Vulcan’s are exciting, as they can accelerate the decarbonization of transportation. Geothermal lithium could be a way to reduce both the embodied emissions of manufacturing electric vehicles and the emissions associated with charging EVs.
Graphics provided by Vulcan Energy Zero Carbon Lithium.
Disclaimer: The author holds 10 shares of Vulcan stock at this writing.