Calgary-based Litus, which has developed a patented process employing nanomaterials for direct lithium extraction from brines, expects to have its portable demonstration unit operational by Q4 of this year.
The company was formed at the University of Calgary in 2019, with the technology developed by Ghada Nafie, Gerardo Vitale and Pedro Pereira-Almo. It has since moved into its own lab.
“The world needs more brine for electric vehicles, primarily batteries. The huge demand growing there, with the North American and European strategic focus wanting to secure their own critical mineral supply chains, they are finding that the sources of lithium are getting into less high concentrations,” Ryan McDonald, Litus’ co-founder and vice-president of strategy, told SustainableBiz.
McDonald said until very recently, most lithium was produced out of the lithium triangle in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. "It really depends on arid regions and the ability to evaporate the water. So now what we’re focused on is lower concentration brines, such as geothermal and oilfield ones."
He said Litus’ process can recover over 90 per cent of the lithium in saltwater brines. The company is still completing a life-cycle analysis, but estimates its extraction process produces three times less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional methods.
Litus' lithium extraction technology
Litus’ technology has proven feasible at the lab, bench and pilot scales.
Nanomaterials by definition have at least one dimension that is less than 100 nanometres - while a nanometre is one billionth of a metre.
Once complete, the demonstration unit will be able to process “several thousand litres per day.” It and future units will be sent to sites which are involved with brine production. Until then, Litus receives tanks of brine from customers which it is able to process in its own lab in Calgary.
"We've found ourselves in a niche market where we can extract lithium as low as 50 ppm (parts per million) with high efficiency while being economically viable, due specifically to the superior performance of our breakthrough nanotechnology material," Nafie told SustainableBiz via email.
As McDonald explained, the Litus nanomaterials don’t grab other minerals in the brine such as sodium, calcium or magnesium. The extracted material is then flushed with a recovery fluid and the lithium pumped out.
“I think the key things to why it's exciting is because the mining and even the evaporation ponds, they aren't as selective to lithium. There's way more steps required to go from the raw material to something that you put in a battery,” he said. “By reducing the number of processing steps, you reduce the energy, the chemicals, the water, all of those things which affect both cost and environment.”
It is planning for a full commercial facility by early 2025.
The initial target markets for Litus are lithium companies looking to extract lithium from lower-concentration water sources in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, as well as higher-concentration sources in Chile and Argentina.
“Not only are the materials low-cost and generally available, but by investing in the robustness of the material, we're looking at a two- to three-year life before any noticeable performance degradation,” McDonald said. “And that's an order of magnitude more than we're seeing with other materials and in our industry.”
He also stated the nanomaterials are recyclable. The cost is dependent on the amount of lithium produced.
Future of direct lithium extraction
According to Litus’ investor info sheet, global demand for lithium is expected to grow by 500 per cent from 400,000 megatonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) today to over two million megatonnes of LCE by 2030 largely due to electric vehicle production.
“We're getting accelerated both into our larger plant and into the pilot units of our customers to further validate the performance by larger scale,” McDonald said.
Currently, the company generates revenue from the licensing of its technology and the sale of the nanocomposite material. Its website calls for investors who may be interested in participating in a financing round.
“We've been getting by primarily on customer revenue and sweat equity, primarily. But an injection of capital right now really helps us because the customer demand exceeds our employment capacity,” McDonald explained. “So we need to hire some more technical staff, and even a bit more on just across the board.
"And if it also helps to pay for these larger-scale units that we're building . . . (then) we feel that we're set up for much larger expansion round of financing.”
The company, which has seven full-time employees, is hoping to add another six in the short-term.
While there are improvements that can be made to the technology, McDonald stated Litus has been “remarkably consistent” with a variety of brines. The technology can be tailored to extract other valuable minerals in the future.
However, that expansion wouldn’t happen until Litus has been able to scale the lithium operation.