The Future of Lithium - A Founders Manifesto (Part 1)

March 17, 2023

Most people wouldn’t know it, but the lithium century began on July 19, 2006, inside a hangar at Santa Monica airport.

That was when Tesla unveiled its first, cherry-red roadster: a small step in a revolution that now, some 17 years on, is in full swing and accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Last year one in seven new cars sold was electric, totalling more than 10 million sold to date. Virtually every major automaker has announced plans to phase out the internal combustion engine and governments have started to roll out bans on the sale of fossil-fuel vehicles by the middle of the next decade.

Elon Musk kicked off what will inevitably be a pivotal point for our future, and given that transport accounts for ~37% of humanity’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, electrifying vehicles (along with a bunch of other things) just makes sense.

After more than a century of dominance, the petroleum age is fading and lithium is the element to replace it.

Lithium is abundant, but extracting it from nature and converting it into a material that we can use is expensive, environmentally destructive, and slow. We founded Novalith Technologies to fix the world’s lithium problem by engineering a process that is cheap, fast, sustainable and fit for the industrial scale-up in production that the world faces. This is what we’ve done. (And we’re hiring!)

As of today, lithium comes primarily from two sources: continental brines and hard-rock ores (lithium-bearing ores).

Brines are naturally-occurring underground ‘saltwater lakes’ located primarily in the “Lithium Triangle” countries of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Tapping them, though, carries huge technical and environmental challenges. They require large evaporation ponds that scar the landscape, take years to come into production, yield low purities, and use vast quantities of water. For every ton of lithium chemical produced, anywhere between 100–800 m³ of water is evaporated, stressing the fragile and remote ecosystems where these lakes are found.

Aerial view of factory in Qarhan Salt Lake, China

The other sources are hard-rock ores such as spodumene. These currently provide ~60% of the world’s lithium. The vast majority comes from Western Australia, but there are large reserves in Europe, Africa, and in the Americas, that have largely remained untapped because they’re expensive, difficult, and environmentally harmful to process.

The current ‘industry standard’ approach for processing hard-rocks involves burning natural gas to heat crushed lithium-bearing spodumene concentrate to ~1100⁰C. This is then roasted in sulphuric acid, a leaching agent that draws out lithium, along with a host of other unwanted chemicals. The resulting lithium sulphate must then be further processed to separate it from the unwanted chemicals and converted to a useful state (as either lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide), producing tonnes of harmful by-products and wastes.

Lithium Mine Processing Plant, Western Australia.

The cost and environmental issues inherent to current methods have turned lithium into a bottleneck threatening to choke the energy transition.

By 2030, it is projected that the world will need to produce 2.7 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent, the raw materials needed for batteries (that go into EVs, phones, laptops and pretty much everything powering our everyday lives), up from the 640,000 tonnes last year. By 2050, we’ll have ~672 million electric vehicles on the road, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

To meet the challenges — and the opportunities — of the lithium century, production needed to be reimagined from first principles, replacing the slow and dirty methods of today with a fast and sustainable approach. This is what we’ve achieved at Novalith Technologies. Our team of engineers, scientists and fossil fuel veterans have engineered a novel process replaces the bulk industrial chemicals (such as sulphuric acid) used in the refining process of rock-based lithium resources with CO₂-infused water.

Novalith is swapping sulphuric acid for carbonated water

Novalith’s LiCAL™ technology reduces production costs, plant costs, and plant footprints by up to 65%, 50%, and 25%, respectively. It uses up to 90% less water, generates none of the harmful bulk wastes that plague the production processes used today and emits less than half the CO₂ per tonne of lithium chemical produced.

After a A$23 million funding round led by Lowercarbon Capital, with participation from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), The Grantham Environmental Trusts’ Neglected Climate Opportunities Fund, TDK Ventures and Investible, we will soon break ground on the first of several pilot plants to show the efficacy, cost and environmental benefit at a far larger scale.

We’re in a unique position to make this dream — this once in a lifetime opportunity — a reality.

From a young age I was captivated by nature, spending my childhood pouring through books on flora and fauna, learning all that I could about the creatures inhabiting the seen and unseen places of our magnificent planet. I was absolutely fascinated by how the natural world manifested itself in the most remarkable and unusual ways, discovering elegant solutions to make what seemed impossible, a simple reality. As humans, we’re only just beginning to grasp the concept that ‘nature does best’, and finding ways in which to integrate these principles into our everyday lives.

Throughout my career as a chemical engineer, I have endeavoured to figure out ways to do ‘engineering’ better. The engineering practices and technologies of the last century most often prioritised profit over sustainability, with the negative impact of that approach on our planet painfully clear to see. With Kemplant, a global chemical engineering company, I worked to assist other inventors in bringing their new ideas to life, scaling and commercialising technologies that have the potential to help us strike a balance with nature without comprising on the demands of our 21st-century society.

When I came across a technical paper briefly describing a technology invented by Dr Brian Haynes’ and his team at the University of Sydney that used carbon dioxide to sustainably extract lithium, I knew that I had found something that could, if we managed to do it right, help make a meaningful difference to our world.

I decided to turn my focus to solving ‘the lithium problem’ and approached my soon-to-be co-founders Dr Andrew Harris and Christiaan Jordaan to bring Novalith Technologies to life. Given the potential of our technology to resolve two of the world’s biggest challenges and hasten our transition (sustainably) to an electric future, Andrew & Christiaan needed no convincing.

Andrew, my former professor, is a chemical engineer (and self-described ‘retiring academic’) who spent his early career advising Big Oil companies and mineral sands developers. He went on to launch a green engineering programme at the University of Sydney, the first of its kind in Australia, and has advised countless climate tech startups.

Christiaan grew up, as I did, in South Africa, surrounded by the open pits, slag heaps and other scars of the nation’s vast extractive industries. He developed mining and energy projects in Africa before shifting into battery materials with his own company, Sicona Battery Materials. He has built deep contacts in the automotive industry, where concerns about lithium sourcing, costs and CO2 impact have surged.

The time is now to make the change that will define the future of the world.

To save ourselves, and the planet, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and electrify (virtually) everything. We can’t do that without a once-in-a-century ramp-up in lithium production, and that can’t happen relying on yesterday’s technologies.

The world needs to completely re-engineer how we produce the most important element of this century, and that is what we are doing at Novalith.

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