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Ideas at the Intersection

Lilac Solutions
Transforming lithium extraction to increase supply and decrease negative environmental impact

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Facebook can be a great way to connect with friends, find local events, or solve the dramatically growing demand for lithium. Or at least that’s what David Snydacker used the popular social networking site for. The idea for his company, Lilac Solutions, was born out of a casual Facebook chat.

A PhD student in Christopher Wolverton's lab, professor of materials science and engineering, Snydacker had been conducting research on ways to power a vehicle with lithium batteries. Aware of this work, Snydacker’s friends sent him questions via Facebook. They wanted to know the environmental impact of lithium and whether or not there would be enough lithium to convert all cars to full battery power. After all, the mainstream success of the electric car relies on a hearty lithium supply.

To answer these questions, Snydacker dove into the world of lithium extraction. He discovered that while there is enough lithium on the planet, there should be a better way to access it.

Lilac Solutions pumps brine from a brine reservoir into a tank filled with materials specialized for ion exchange.
Lilac Solutions pumps brine from a brine reservoir into a tank filled with materials specialized for ion exchange.

The Problem

Most of the world’s lithium reserves are found in salt brines, located in South America, China, and the United States. The conventional process for extracting lithium from brines involves transferring the brine to small ponds where the water is evaporated. Not only are these brine ponds expensive to build and maintain, but the evaporation process takes 18 to 24 months. After the remaining lithium is removed from the pond, residual salt is collected and stored in massive, toxic salt piles. Even after all this money and effort, this process only recovers 50 percent of the lithium available in the brine and cannot access lower-quality lithium resources.

In my research to answer these questions, I uncovered mostly good news about the future of lithium, but I also uncovered a big opportunity. New extraction technologies are needed to ramp up supply.Dave Snydacker, Lilac Solutions, chief technology officer

The Solution

Snydacker’s proposed solution uses ion exchange, an alternative process for extracting lithium that can boost lithium production and access new, lower-quality resources. Instead of using evaporation ponds, the process extracts lithium by using materials that can selectively absorb lithium from brine and then release it at a high concentration.

Snydacker partnered with colleagues in Christopher Wolverton’s research group to search for new ion exchange materials. Using Wolverton’s previously created Open Quantum Materials Database, Snydacker identified 13 potential new materials. The extensive database allows users to search materials by compositions. It also uses machine-learning that can learn chemistry to predict the possible existence of new compounds that have not yet been synthesized. Snydacker founded Lilac Solutions to develop these materials for ion exchange — materials that can extract lithium faster, at a higher concentration, and with a much smaller carbon footprint.

How It Works

Lilac Solutions plans to pump brine directly from a brine reservoir into a tank filled with materials specialized for ion exchange. When the brine filters through the material, it releases lithium to be collected. The remaining salt waste will be drained directly back into the brine reservoir. This streamlined process bypasses the need for the brine to be transported to evaporation ponds and eliminates the toxic salt piles that result from the conventional process.

Benefits

Current Status

Two of the materials identified by the Open Quantum Materials Database were tested experimentally to validate the model. Lilac Solutions has plans to test the remaining 11 materials. Northwestern has filed provisional patent applications for Lilac Solutions’ materials and process.

Updated August 2016

Team MembersAlex Grant (chemical and biological engineering), Dave Snydacker (materials science)
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