Rules of Extraction
Unlocking the future of Electrification means solving age-old mining and resource extraction challenges
Despite general venture capital headwinds, cleantech investing has experienced a resurgence over the past three years. Even with a slight deceleration in Q1 2023, climate tech has eclipsed the highs it reached in the late aughts. Within cleantech, electric vehicle adoption continues to be a significant growth driver.
Historically, the conversation about EV adoption centered around battery chemistries and cost per kW/hr. However, limited supplies of raw materials, specifically lithium, pose a much more serious long-term threat to the viability of the electromobility sector. Most lithium currently originates from the 'lithium triangle' in South America and certain provinces in China. Demand for lithium is set to outpace these reserves in the next three years.
To keep pace with demand, companies and governments are investing in an array of emerging technologies that pave the way for more efficient extraction, unlock new lithium reserves and enable recycling of lithium from discarded batteries and electronics.
Why You Should Care: We've seen the impact of short-term supply disruptions in everything from shipping containers to eggs. Without new approaches to lithium extraction, we're looking at long-term supply disruptions, which will drive up prices on almost every device that uses a battery. Looking at lithium extraction through the lens of IP generation provides unique insights into the R&D happening today that will shape commercialization and drive new investment opportunities for the next decade.
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Despite New Innovation, Lithium Remains the Dominant Chemistry
Companies have filed more patents for lithium batteries over the last 10 years than all other battery chemistries combined. This includes lead-acid, nickel, and manganese.
The trend isn't slowing down either. New patent filings for lithium batteries grew at 10% over the last 5 years, trailing only zinc and sodium.
So What: While investment in alternative battery chemistries (as well as fuel cells and flow batteries) is critical to unlocking widespread electrification, it will likely be at least 10 years before their implementation reaches a scale that meaningfully impacts resource supply chains.
Lithium demand; however, is already outpacing supply. Supply chains are already tightening, and without meaningful change in the next three years, will become a significant drag on electrification.
New Technologies Aim to Change the Economics of Lithium Extraction
Traditional lithium extraction relies on allowing saltwater brine pools to evaporate under the sun for months, leaving behind lithium salts. This method is time-consuming and inefficient. Additionally, it consumes vast quantities of water, disrupts local ecosystems, and increases the risk of soil contamination. Furthermore, the susceptibility of these ponds to weather fluctuations creates uncertainties in timeline and output.
Adsorption: Materials with porous surfaces selectively attract and bind lithium ions from a brine. Adsorbed ion can be easily separated and collected for further processing.
Recycling: Dismantling and treating spent batteries and electronic waste to extract lithium salts.
Ion Exchange: Use specialized materials that selectively attract lithium ions while repelling other ions in a solution. Lithium ions can then be separated and purified.
Solvent Extraction: Lithium is extracted from brines using organic solvents that selectively dissolve the lithium salts. The solvent-lithium solution is then separated from the remaining brine, and the lithium is recovered through additional chemical processes
Electrochemical Extraction: Leverages electrochemical reactions to separate lithium ions from brines. Electric current is applied to selectively attract lithium ions to an electrode where they can be harvested and processed.
Membranes: Employs semipermeable membranes designed to allow only lithium ions to pass through while filtering out other ions and impurities. Membranes can be enhanced with functional materials to improve selectivity and performance.
Lithium Extraction IP Landscape
Legacy Mining Companies Stake out Strong IP Positions: Posco, JX Nippon, and Nippon Steel invested in traditional extraction technologies starting in 2010.
Battery OEMs Explore Recycling: CATL, LG, and SK have been quickly growing their portfolio with a focus on extracting lithium from used batteries.
Department of Energy Drives Early Stage Innovation: ORNL, ANL, INL, and NETL have all invested heavily in lithium extraction
Startups promise to drive efficiency in existing projects and unlock new deposits:
Lithium Extraction IP Commercialization Opportunities
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