Conventional Lithium Extraction
The conventional extraction of lithium, through the evaporation of brines, can have significant impacts on water resources and ecology. The conventional process evaporates water from brines in large ponds (thousands of acres), which are expensive to build and maintain. This one-way movement of water from the ground to the atmosphere can result in significant impacts on groundwater as well as land subsidence. Further, residual salt waste is collected and stored in massive salt piles that scar the landscape and present a risk to the environment.
Evaporation based lithium processing suffers from poor recovery, typically less than 50%, and is affected by precipitation and other aspects of the weather. The vagaries of weather and climate can therefore impact project economics and time to market.
In addition, the high salt environment in and around the evaporation ponds can be toxic to flora and fauna; related leaching, spills, or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. In short, the old evaporation technology is expensive, potentially harmful, and does not optimize the resource.
The European Commission on Science for Environmental Policy states that lithium’s “continued use needs to be monitored, especially as lithium mining’s toxicity and location in places of natural beauty can cause significant environmental, health, and social impacts.”