New Method Could Help Increase Supply of Much-Needed “White Gold”
Mert Akin, graduate assistant in mechanical engineering at the University of Miami, has developed a lithium extraction technique that is more efficient and more environmentally friendly than conventional methods.
They call it “white gold”, “21st century oil” and “star mineral”.
But whatever name is attached to it, lithium, essential for batteries that power electric cars, smartphones and computer electronics, is in high demand.
The metal, however, is not easy to extract, requiring expensive, time-consuming and environmentally unfriendly production methods.
Mert Akin, a graduate assistant in mechanical engineering at the University of Miami, has a solution. Recently, at the Materials Lab of the College of Engineering, he repeated his new technique for extracting lithium from geothermal brines.
And just like before, when he tested his method under the close observation of faculty mentors, the procedure worked flawlessly, producing a nearly impurity-free lithium sample in just under two hours – a drastic reduction. compared to the 18 hours it usually takes to extract the metal.
While Akin’s groundbreaking method hasn’t generated any hype or headlines, it has the potential to change the way renewable energy companies drill for lithium and, more importantly, reduce reliance. from the United States to foreign sources of the material.
Most of the world’s lithium is extracted from mineral-rich brines, heated fluids found in rocks deep within the earth’s crust.
âThe conventional way to access it involves a process of drilling and then pumping the brine into solar evaporation ponds, where it actually stays for a year and a half,â said Akin, doctor of mechanical engineering. candidate.
But such a method, he noted, is bad for the environment, contaminates the soil and consumes excessive amounts of water. âIt takes the capacity of the UC pool to produce a single ton of lithium,â said Akin, referring to the Olympic-sized pool on the university’s Coral Gables campus.
Akin’s electrochemical technique directly extracts lithium, eliminating the long process of solar evaporation and producing purer lithium free from sodium, potassium and other impurities commonly found in lithium recovered via conventional extraction methods.
âOur method extracts 90% purer lithium, and the cost of extracting that lithium is drastically reduced from $ 5 per kilogram of lithium to around $ 1 per kilogram,” said Akin.
The Akin project, developed under the supervision of professors from the College of Engineering Xiangyang Zhou and Hongtan Liu, is a semi-finalist of the US Department of Energy’s Geothermal Lithium Geothermal Prize.
As one of the 15 semi-finalists, the team receives $ 40,000 and proceeds to phase 2. Five finalists from this phase will each receive $ 280,000 and will manufacture and test their designs for phase 3. Three winners will compete. will share $ 2 million in the $ 4 million competition designed to advance technologies and techniques to support direct extraction of lithium from geothermal brines.
As automakers step up production of pure electric models and more utility companies fuse lithium-ion batteries into their power systems, global demand for lithium is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. years. General Motors, for example, plans to introduce 30 electric models by 2025 and stop selling gasoline automobiles 10 years later.
âSo the demand will only skyrocket,â Akin said.
But the United States might find it difficult to meet this demand. The only operational lithium mine in the United States is in Nevada, with most of the lithium used in the country coming from Latin America and Australia.
âWe do have an eye on the Salton Sea, however,â said Akin, referring to the landlocked body of saline water in southern California that contains some of the largest lithium deposits in the world.
He hopes his revolutionary technique, which has only been tested under simulated laboratory conditions and requires more experimentation, perhaps in the field, will eventually become the model for lithium mining methods.