Ben from Saltworks Technologies, has a rare gift to infect you with enthusiasm and curiosity, while explaining an arcane lithium processing technology, and simultaneously addressing topics as diverse as environmental impact, quality of lithium resources around the world, oil & gas brines fit for lithium production and innovations for more efficient lithium extraction process from salars.
Lithium Today: You mainly work with most important commodity, we have – water.
Ben Sparrow (CEO, Saltworks Technologies): Yes, well said.
LT: So I am interested, how you moved from waste water treatment to extracting lithium.
Ben: Ok, so we don’t do wastewater treatment, we do advanced desalination, meaning we are moving ions from water and concentrating salt water to extreme concentrations, since a lot of lithium mining really is water mining. As you and your readers know, lithium is often dissolved from water and the name of the game is concentrating it as cost effectively as possible and then selectively crystalizing out lithium carbonate. So it’s just a very natural fit for what we do, it’s a same sort of competencies.
LT: How would you compare the way you extract lithium to other methods, in terms of cost efficiency?
Ben: So very key point here is, if we start from the basis that lithium mining is really ion mining from water or desalination, then one needs to be aware, there is no silver bullet, there is no one shoe, that fits all, for either water treatment or in that case lithium mining.
So I would not compare what we do on equal footing every single time. Every single lithium resource is different. It requires a different approach. For example if lithium has higher magnesium or calcium, it is called hardness, that requires a very different approach than if it’s lower.
There are really three methods: one of them is quite innovative, one is somebody’s else technology that I am very excited about, and the third is using our conventional water treatment technology. So I would go through those, if it helps you..
LT: Please, go ahead.
Ben: Ok, so first I would start with a company called Standard Lithium, not sure if you ever come across them..
Standard Lithium is a lithium mining company who has rights to a very significant lithium resource in United States, so it’s close to market, it’s close to transportation, it’s close to power. It’s very exciting in my view. And they have a particular type of lithium water, with high level of lithium but there are other things in it..
What we are doing with them, and I can’t talk about technology that they develop – some very interesting technology…we are helping them build their pilot lab and make it work.
We are using our water treatment expertise, our controls knowledge, and what not to help enable them and I am particularly excited about their process from economics point of view, I think, it’s very interesting.
And then when we set this aside, there is a second area that we work in, and there’s where Standard Lithium got interested in us, instead of others. We developed a membrane. It’s an ion selective membrane, that will block out all monovalent ions and only allow for passage of non-monovalent.
What it means if you are looking at a lithium resource, where most often lithium is in low concentration and if it’s polluted with calcium or magnesium, it can be very expensive to refine it, to refine that water. So what we can do with this membrane, we can pull out lithium and sodium across a membrane and we can separate those two, and we purify it from calcium and magnesium. Calcium and magnesium are the pollutants. They really hurt lithium productivity, if they are present.
When you try to precipitate out magnesium, to get it out to remove that pollutant, you may end up actually removing a good portion of lithium. Then you have lost your yield. It’s not great at all..So we use this membrane to pull it across and leave the pollutants, the calcium, magnesium behind, and also when we are pulling it out across the membrane, we are concentrating up the lithium. So you can concentrate it up like 10-20 times. So that lowers, a volume of water, that needs to be removed downstream. Therefore it might be one of the potential new tools to be available for the lithium industry and it’s based on the back of a 50 years old technology called electrodialysis reversal (EDR).
EDR has been around for many years, it’s the second most widely used membrane desalination technology on the planet. Spain has the world’s largest EDR plant, which up to the last years, has been the world’s largest membrane desalination plant. So it’s all well known in industrial practice technology, all we have done, we have made a better membrane for it.
LT: Are you the first company on the market who adopted this years old technology for lithium extraction or somebody else is doing it as well?
Ben: Well, no, in fact the Chinese have been doing it for a number of years, but their membrane is not that selective, the trick is in selectivity of the membrane. Our big value contribution is really two fold, one is a membrane which is much higher performing, so it can purify lithium to much greater extent, with less loss. So the lithium mining businesses can get as much lithium from the resources as they possibly can. And then two: the electrodialysis system as the whole, we modernised it, so it’s sort of like if you would compare a car from 1950s’ with a car from today.
Hence it would be interesting to see how it can help lithium industry and it is not about coming up with a completely new technology, it’s a known technology, it’s been used with lithium before but we just made it a lot better.
LT: Is Standard Lithium the first company with whom you apply your method or have you also worked with others?
Ben: No, so right now, Standard Lithium is working with their process, this new technology we just starting to release it. So we want to let the lithium industry know and look for the first innovative company, who would like to give it a try. We are an industrial company, we make much of the money, elsewhere, there is just a few of us, who are personally interested in lithium. So we will be hopefully piloting it, in a relatively short period of time and proving it out to that first partner who has the courage to seek innovation
LT: Can you extract lithium from brine coming from every oil well or a set of special circumstances must exist in order to do it?
Ben: I would say, the latter exactly, so we do a lot of oil brine treatment, not really for lithium and we see a lot of what people would consider high levels of lithium, especially in Canadian shale gas. I would not spend a penny on trying to extract lithium from oil field brines, I think it is an uneconomic idea because oil field brines are spread out over relatively large distances, in a really low volume, and a lithium content as well is really low, you see, you would have to centralize all of this oil field brines to the plant and then you would have to concentrate it, to extract lithium. There is much pollutants in there that would harm a process, so I think from the point of process engineering/economics it makes not much sense. There are ground water lithium resources, that are cleaner, higher volume and also higher lithium content.
Ben: There is a third way that we work, that can help industry, and that’s just using our conventional brine concentration technology, so as I mentioned, we are an industrial desalter, so we can concentrate up fluids to high level, with the lowest costs and that’s a big part of the lithium game. When you find a resource, it’s about concentrating it, and then extracting, as much lithium as you can, at the highest yield possible, at the lowest cost. But again it’s what industrial desalination is, it’s what many of desalination engineers try to achieve.
LT: When you are now looking at the market, do you see any particular geographical areas, where your solution could be of interest?
Ben: I think USA and South America and China. These are the big three you often hear about, China especially and I am saying that just because their lithium resources are heavily polluted by calcium and magnesium. South America, they have more pure lithium resources, which is also why they are more competitive today.
LT: So could your technology be applied to the salars, which are at the moment exploited, to increase the efficiency?
Ben: Well said, exactly, so we can take existing salar pond, and process much much more volume, much much more fluid. Because of the pre-concentration. Now, we are running a project to look at that, to review a potential to do that, and so to do a pilot. There is a lot of questions that needs to be answered about the energy, energy source available and a yield and a recovery, but these are the questions, I feel worth investigating. So, as a CEO I am willing to make investment in there.
LT: Ok, that sounds very interesting. So in case if you deal with a new project, how long does it take to implement your technology?
Ben: If it’s a conventional technology, with brine concentration, it’s easier. We build those everyday in one of our two factories, lead times are about 4 months.
But what I think is one of the most exciting and one of the most interesting ones, is an monovalent cation exchange membrane. Here, to get to a full scale, that would probably take 1-2 years, because one would want to do a study, do a pilot at site, make sure pilot works well, then build a plant after that.
LT: So far you talked at length about your technology, but for a lay person, with no engineering background, it still might be a little bit difficult to understand the process, so if you could really in simple words, sum it up.
Ben: Sure, so again, it’s three technologies. Not just one.
One is Standard Lithium’s, which I can’t make public, two is conventional methods – concentrating lithium in water, using membranes and thermal systems and then the third and the most exciting one is where we selectively pull lithium out of low concentration lithium water and then we concentrate it up, to the very high concentration rapidly. So it just crosses a membrane from the low side into the high side where it becomes 10-20 x more concentrated. Then it also has very low hardness, the reason why that’s important is, it means a miner precipitating out lithium, he will precipitate much more lithium, because he will have much less pollutants in it.
LT: But I am wondering, how is it possible that you are able to concentrate it so quickly in terms of time.
Ben: So if you look at electrodialysis, EDR, that’s a fundamental technology, you can find references in Wikipedia or on our website. That’s the technology people have been using for 50 years to concentrate the salt in water. So it’s a well known thing, we just put a better membrane in it, to enable to do it with lithium. It’s using an electric field. So you set up a positive and negative charge across this pack of membranes, so on one side of membrane you will have your diluted (lithium) and on the other you will get a concentrated lithium and a positive and negative field pulls a lithium from one membrane on the one side and as it crosses out membrane it’s rejecting calcium, rejecting magnesium – the pollutants, and on the other side you have other membrane which is pulling chloride across, so you can concentrate up lithium chloride. So you have special ion exchange membranes to concentrate and electric field to drive the ions across.
LT: How would you describe an impact of those technologies on environment?
Ben: In terms of environmental impact, it will make the ponds smaller, up to about 10 times.
Ben: It would reduce the amounts of chemicals that needs to be shipped to site, because right now, they remove these pollutants by adding chemicals like lime and soda ash, there is less tracking of chemicals to site. But it would use more electricity, so you would have to generate a power somehow. So the questions is if you could use solar, because salars have a high degree of solar energy. The math needs to be done, to investigate environmental benefit and economic benefit, but I think it’s just worth looking at.