According to executives, the mining industry is aiming to increase freshwater recycling while simultaneously developing direct lithium extraction, or DLE, technologies as it races to rethink how the battery metal is produced for the green energy transition.

The rising global demand for lithium has prompted broad interest in DLE technologies, which require less land and can process the white metal more faster than traditional methods such as hard rock mining and brine evaporation ponds.

However, some DLE technologies require 180 metric tonnes or more of water to produce a single metric tonne of lithium, a practice that has sparked controversy in arid regions seeking to conserve potable water and has offset DLE’s ostensible promise of reducing the mining industry’s large water use.

Now, DLE developers are rushing to increase freshwater recycling while they fine-tune the technology, as part of an effort to maintain community acceptance before the business can become fully commercial.

“We’re going to get crushed if we don’t do a good job of recycling that water and reducing our water footprint,” John Burba, executive chairman of International Battery Metals, said this week at the Reuters Events Industry Transition conference in Pittsburgh. “DLE is a very water-intensive process.”

Mr Burba told the conference that IBAT, which is in talks to license its DLE technology to Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and others, recovers 98.5 percent of the freshwater used in the lithium production process and plans to increase that figure.

EnergyX, a privately held company with General Motors as an investor, claims it can recover up to 90% of its freshwater, a figure its experts are aiming to raise.

“Getting it down to maybe five, ten, or fifteen [metric] tonnes of freshwater per tonne of lithium is kind of where you want to be,” EnergyX CEO Teague Egan said.

According to CEO Rod Colwell, Controlled Thermal Resources, which is developing a geothermal lithium plant in California’s Salton Sea to supply GM and Stellantis, recycles a gallon (3.7 litres) of water at least eight times and will produce water via steam from its geothermal power process.

“How many times can we recycle?” “That’s the real question,” Mr Colwell added.

E3 Lithium, which is sponsored by Exxon’s Imperial Oil, began testing three DLE technologies in Alberta, Canada, last month and plans to add water recycling facilities once it goes commercial, according to CEO Chris Doornbos.

“You end up having a small water treatment facility with your processing facility so they can reuse that water over and over again,” Mr Doornbos explained.

Each of the developers stated that they expect at least one DLE technology to be commercially available by early 2025, which will boost the overall sector.

“DLE is a growing and improving tool that allows us to unlock brines that might have been uneconomic in the past,” said Emily Hersh, CEO of privately held mining company Luna Lithium.

Whereas many questioned whether DLE could ever replace traditional lithium mining, executives say those concerns have subsided.

“The question of whether DLE works is no longer relevant. It’s a technical challenge. “It’s not a technological challenge,” E3’s Mr Doornbos explained.

The attempt to reduce water use, executives said, may help allay some of the EV industry’s fears about mining’s environmental impact as demand for lithium rises.

“Every single [card manufacturer] recognizes that lithium is the limiting factor in producing electric vehicles,” EnergyX’s Mr Egan said.


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