A team led by Greeshma Gadikota from the College of Engineering has been named one of five finalists for a national prize for its environmentally friendly method of extracting lithium, an increasingly essential ingredient for electric vehicle batteries, energy storage, smartphones and laptops.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s American-Made Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize finalists, narrowed from 238 groups, are finding the best, most efficient ways to domestically mine lithium. While the contest is academic, inventive and scholarly, successful domestic lithium extraction methods could lead to an economic boom and help attain a green future for the U.S.
Contest results will be announced in fall 2023.
“Lithium is the new gold,” said Gadikota, assistant professor and Croll Sesquicentennial Fellow in Civil and Environmental Engineering. She is also a faculty fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. “Lithium’s value has surged in the past year. We cannot really talk about having a meaningful, clean energy transition without talking about critical metals – and lithium figures at the top of that list.”
Currently, the U.S. imports nearly all of its lithium supply, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Mining operations in Argentina, Chile, China and Australia supply the bulk of the world’s lithium.
Worldwide lithium production increased by 21% to nearly 100,000 tons in 2021, according to the USGS, up from 82,500 tons in 2020. Global lithium manufacturing consumption was estimated to be 93,000 tons in 2021, up from 70,000 tons in 2020.
For the U.S., domestically extracting lithium from brines from the subsurface – left over from geothermal energy production – can be an environmentally friendly process that yields ample lithium. Efficiently extracting it is the key.
Gadikota’s group is pioneering “Engineered Lithium Ion-Sieve Technology,” which involves binding lithium to an ion sieve, stripping it from the cell using recycled acidic solutions, then applying electrochemistry to that lithium concentrate to produce lithium hydroxide.
During that final step, hydrogen and acids become the byproducts. The hydrogen can be used for energy, while the acids can be looped back into the process for lithium stripping. The extracted lithium is then used for energy storage.
Gadikota’s team members are:
• Rajashekhar Marthi, postdoctoral researcher;
• Hassnain Asgar, doctoral student;
• York Smith, adjunct associate professor, University of Utah;
• John McLennan, associate professor, University of Utah; and
• Michael A. McKibben, emeritus faculty, University of California, Riverside.
Critical minerals, such as lithium, are an important component of the new Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which the U.S. Senate passed on Aug. 7. The bill – which features green energy provisions – increases American energy security, all while decarbonizing the economy. The bill provides for improving batteries and minerals processing, which will require lithium. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the measure Aug. 12.
Developing green energy is mineral intensive, which means that lithium supply security is a top domestic priority. “This contest opens up new possibilities for using regenerable materials and renewable electricity, and lithium recovery from geothermal sources,” Gadikota said. “Cornell has a long history of this kind of innovation, so our team is iterating on that tradition to address societal challenges. We want to tackle lithium recovery in an environmentally benign manner, while being cost competitive.”
In addition to Cornell, the other finalists are George Washington University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Rice University and the University of Virginia.
The American-Made Geothermal Prize is administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and funded by the Geothermal Technologies Office