Automakers are investing in new technology aimed at producing greener lithium for EV

Automobile manufacturers, investors, and even oilfield giant Schlumberger NV (SLB.N) are embracing environmentally friendly lithium production technologies that might help meet 25% or more of worldwide demand for the metal by the end of the decade.

In recent months, Stellantis, Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and others have invested millions of dollars or signed supply agreements with so-called direct lithium extraction (DLE) start-ups in an attempt to speed up the technology’s commercialization, which is expected to happen within the next year or two.

Hard rock mining and brine evaporation ponds, the traditional methods of processing white metal, consume more land and groundwater than DLE technologies. If the technology can operate on a broad scale, industry observers see it as a fresh option to help assure lithium supply for the EV market.

“More green lithium is the promise of this new technology,” said Kasper Sage of BMW I Ventures, BMW’s (BMWG.DE) venture capital fund, which this week invested in DLE tech start-up firm Lilac Solutions Inc.

DLE technologies are similar to ordinary domestic water softeners, which remove metals from the water supply. The metal inside an average-sized warehouse can be filtered in as little as a few hours. Traditional evaporation ponds, on the other hand, can cover hundreds of acres, permanently drain surrounding aquifers, and take years to generate lithium. Most DLE methods, however, are more expensive to maintain than solar-powered evaporation ponds, and some require considerable amounts of fresh water and electricity.

DLE methods have been examined by Albemarle Corp (ALB.N) and other traditional lithium producers, but they believe they will not become mainstream until later this decade, due to concerns about high energy and water use.

“Access to clean water is one of the key hindrances to DLE,” said John Peichel of Suez PA’s (SEVI.PA) water technology division, which sells equipment to the lithium industry.

Schlumberger, which is well known for its hydraulic fracturing expertise, is developing a DLE project in Nevada with the “ultimate goal” of producing lithium without the need for freshwater. The US Department of Energy is supporting this goal with a $4 million prize for the best geothermal lithium technology advancements.


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