US researchers use magnets to extract lithium - energy

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  • • The world needs huge amounts of lithium to meet the demand for lithium-ion batteries
  • • The United States lags behind China in securing lithium supplies
  • • The United States has more than 100 geothermal power plants
  • • Wastewater from mining and fracking can be a major source of lithium

Catching up in the global race to supply lithium requires urgent and extraordinary efforts, as the world needs huge amounts of it to meet the demand for electric car batteries and energy storage.

This comes at a time when the United States lags behind China in securing supplies of this rare metal, according to the Inside Climate News website, which is concerned with news of climate change, energy and the environment.

In this context, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, USA, have produced a magnet that can separate lithium and other minerals from water.

This method allows companies to cost-effectively collect lithium from sources such as brine used in geothermal (ground) energy systems and industrial wastewater.

The fortunes of southwest Britain

While southwest Britain is famous for its gorgeous coastlines, green countryside and fresh seafood, another series could be added to the region’s fortunes over the next few years: lithium mining, CNBC reported last January.

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Clay extraction from a well at a geothermal lithium plant in California – Photo courtesy of “Inside Climate News”

Efforts are being made to tap into the natural resources of Cornwall in southwest Britain, create an industry that could in the future generate electricity from renewable energy sources and create a local source of lithium.

Along with its use in mobile phones, computers, tablets, and a host of other gadgets, lithium is a critical metal for electric vehicles and battery storage, two technologies that play a major role in transforming the planet into a low-emissions future.

An example of how this nascent sector will progress over the next few years is the UK’s Geothermal Engineering, which is developing and operating geothermal projects in the UK.

Three companies in Salton Lake, California’s largest lake, are developing chemical processes to extract lithium in a much cleaner way, taking advantage of the lake’s rich geothermal resources.

There are 11 operational geothermal power plants near the lake, 10 of which are owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s renewable energy division.

The company is pumping 50,000 gallons of brine per minute through all 10 geothermal facilities to the surface, and using the steam from that brine to generate clean electricity, said Alicia Knapp, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway’s renewable energy division.

She explained that the company has come halfway to achieve its goals, as it is currently acquiring lithium.

Extracting lithium from plant water

Using magnets to separate lithium and other minerals from water could represent a paradigm shift for lithium extraction, said Jian Liu, chief research engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, USA.

The lab has developed “ultra-fine” magnetic nanoparticles that attach to the materials the user is trying to extract from the liquid. Then, when the liquid passes over a magnetic field, the nanoparticles are separated from the lithium.

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A view of a geothermal power plant in Salton Lake – Image via “Inside Climate News”

It took Jian Liu and his colleagues about eight years to develop the system. The system in the laboratory consists of a set of water containers connected to transparent plastic tubes and electronic pumps.

The lab posted a video on YouTube in 2016. The researcher placed a small jar of black liquid on a magnet, and the liquid quickly separated into a clear liquid on top, and a black clump of metal particles at the bottom.

At the time, Liu was working on how to extract lithium from liquid circulating in geothermal power plants.

For its part, the geothermal power plant captures heat from below the surface of the earth to produce steam that drives turbines to generate electricity, and heat is transmitted through the circulation of a fluid that travels from the depths of the extremely hot Earth to the surface, and then back again.

Geothermal power plants

The United States has more than 100 geothermal power plants, most of which are small, with a total capacity of less than 4,000 megawatts.

Entrepreneurs work on projects that increase the contribution of geothermal energy to the energy mix and use it to convert to carbon-free electricity.

Geothermal power plants are only part of the energy transition, said Jian Liu, chief research engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, US.

He noted that the same system could be used to collect lithium from “residual water,” which includes wastewater from mining, fracking and other industrial processes, and this could be a major source of lithium.

Based on an estimate of 1 trillion gallons of water produced in the United States and an average of 9 parts per million of lithium in that water, the lab system has the technical potential that can be used to extract 34,000 tons of lithium annually, Jian Liom said.

Those quantities represent several times the current US production, Liu said.

Economic considerations

The main economic consideration is that the process has a cost; Which means it makes economic sense for use in liquids with high concentrations of lithium, the Inside Climate News website, which deals with climate change, energy and the environment, published on May 12.

Research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, USA, is working to reduce costs.

The Santa Rosa Mountains adjacent to the Thacker Pass lithium mine site in northern Nevada
The Santa Rosa Mountains adjacent to the Thacker Pass lithium mine site in northern Nevada, USA

The lab’s chief research engineer, Jian Liu, said, citing estimates, that the process is currently profitable for use in geothermal power plants containing 100ppm of lithium, with a yield rate of about 15%.

He explained that few geothermal power plants contain this much lithium in brine.

Furthermore, the lab is collaborating with Mossel Technologies, a Texas-based company, that is exploring various ways to obtain lithium and other rare metals.

Mossel Technologies seeks to demonstrate the importance of this technology by highlighting the difference with some of the more common methods of lithium collection, such as the use of large evaporation pools, which are ineffective and often harmful to the surrounding environment.

The system developed by the Pacific Northwest Laboratory is one of several projects at research institutions across the United States that are trying to help increase the supply of lithium and do so in a way that is less environmentally friendly.

Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois is working with SQM in Chile, one of the world’s largest lithium producers, on various methods that would reduce environmental damage from evaporation ponds.

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