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Exclusive: Lilac completes direct lithium demonstration

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Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

Lithium startup Lilac Solutions completed a one-year demonstration of its mineral extraction tech in Argentina, the company tells Axios exclusively.

Why it matters: The company says its ultra-efficient tech can enable mining companies to develop a range of lithium reserves once deemed economically unviable.

State of play: Most lithium is extracted from watery brines. A company evaporates the water and collects the mineral left behind — a process that hasn't much evolved in 30 years.

  • The battery and EV boom of the past few years has sparked a new race to develop more efficient production.

The latest: Lilac is among a handful of companies working on "direct lithium extraction" to produce lithium more efficiently.

  • The Oakland-based startup told Axios this morning that its Kachi Demonstration Plant in Argentina hit its lithium recovery targets while showing that it can consume just a tenth of the water required for a conventional project.

What they're saying: "This technology opens a wide variety of projects to development, including projects with limited access to freshwater or lower concentrations of lithium," CEO Dave Snydacker tells Axios.

Of note: The project produced 5 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalents. The company says its commercial plant would produce 50,000 metric tons per year.

How it works: There are three main types of direct lithium extraction. Lilac's approach is based on one called ion exchange, where the company uses a type of bead to absorb a bunch of lithium and then an acid to flush it out.

  • The approach has drawn backing from top-tier climate investors, including Lowercarbon Capital, Earthshot Ventures, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and The Engine.
  • The company was also selected last year for a potential $50 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy for domestic production.

Yes, but: Everything has a tradeoff. In Lilac's case, it has to build an on-site facility to produce the acid — in turn increasing a project's upfront cost.

What we're watching: Direct lithium extraction startups have achieved successes with small projects; commercial scale promises a bigger challenge.

  • One of those larger projects: a planned site that Lilac says it's developing on the Great Salt Lake.
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