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Passionate experts make renewable energy a reality

Inquimae's Professor Ernesto Julio Calvo

Since winning the DSM Bright Minds Challenge in June 2017, the expert support received by Inquimae has proved to be truly invaluable, says Professor Ernesto Julio Calvo.

So just how do you take an idea from the concept to commercial success?

The types of knowledge you need to do this are so far outside the traditional comfort zone of a scientist like me that it’s hard to even know where to start,” says Professor Ernesto Julio Calvo at the University of Buenos Aires and director of Inquimae.

Specifically, the Inquimae team received support from DSM and partners in amongst others three key areas: market analysis; industrial scale-up; and Intellectual Property (IP).

Defining the landscape -  Sytze Dijkstra, Senior Principal of Sustainability Research, Accenture

"We helped Inquimae gain a better understanding of the global lithium market and thus where to focus their commercial efforts. I led a team of five researchers at Accenture and we used various analytical and modeling tools to assess the market both now and in the future.

"We looked at global demand (which is growing rapidly due to the increasing scale of battery production for electric cars and remote electrification of unconnected communities, among others); and global supply - including lithium producers and their asset portfolios. Eventually we helped Inquimae focus in on the ‘sweet spot’ for their technology; to understand potential partners and customers for their technology; as well as advising them on how to start a dialogue with the relevant industry players."  

Says Professor Ernesto: “At the university we’d found it very difficult to find objective information on the global lithium industry. We just did not know where to look, or who to ask. The information that Accenture provided was crucial in focusing our efforts.”

Scaling up - Tjien Tjioe, Senior Chemical Engineer, DSM Materials Science Center

At DSM my role is to develop, scale-up and design new chemical production processes (as well as improve existing ones) – and this is where I’ve been helping the Inquimae team, especially in developing a pilot installation.

On the one hand, many principles of industrial scale-up are universal: for example, production needs to be fast, efficient and in high concentrations. On the other hand, Inquimae really is an extraordinary concept - so it was fascinating for me to learn about using electro-chemistry to extract and store lithium from natural salt flats.

In the very simplest terms, when it comes to scale-up you imagine what the finished pilot plant will look like…and then you work out a detailed plan of how to get there. In particular I advised Ernesto and his team on four critical milestones that they needed to reach before making the big investment in a pilot plant. It’s now in their hands!”

Says Professor Ernesto: “It was invaluable for us to have an expert onboard who knows how to think and plan processes at scale. It’s another topic we knew nothing about but Tjien gave us that insight.”

A smart IP strategy - Dietmar Pressner, Senior Vice President of Intellectual Property, DSM

"The key to a good IP strategy is finding the right balance between risk and opportunity.

By helping Inquimae review their patent estate in different countries we not only enabled them to protect their IP but we broadened their mindset to create ‘the right to invite’. In other words, opening up potential new revenue streams, such as licensing their lithium technology."

To provide a deeper insight here, we also conducted some patent searches to look at who has been active in this field. Who owns patents in lithium extraction? How were those patents granted? Were they built on pre-existing patents? And if so what does that tell us about the nature of the companies we are dealing with? Aggressive? Innovative? Both?"

There is always some uncertainty in the field of IP…but at DSM we’ve done what we can to help Ernesto find some creative solutions - and potential partners - to take the business forward. I believe there are some very exciting times ahead for Professor Calvo and his team.”

Says Ernesto: “Dietmar and the DSM team really helped us understand the true power and potential of IP. As a direct result of their advice we are developing a private company that offers lithium extraction services in much the same way as a mining company would!”

Lithium battery technology is one of the greatest energy innovations of the past 25 years. Today it powers everything from phones to laptops. Tomorrow, it could be driving a completely different kind of mobile technology in the shape of electronic cars – as well as helping millions of people through the ability to connect the unconnected via remote electrification.

However, an electronic car battery requires 17,000 times more lithium than a phone battery to function properly. And extracting that lithium as a raw material – and storing it effectively - is a time-consuming, energy hungry and environmentally straining process.

This is the roadblock that Professor Ernesto Julio Calvo and his team from the University of Buenos Aires have solved with Inquimae. Winner of the DSM Bright Minds Challenge, in June 2017, Inquimae is solar-powered lithium extraction process that takes hours instead of months; doesn’t compromise water resources; and is both chemical and waste-free. And now it’s set to move from the lab to commercial production.

A wild journey

Says Professor Ernesto: “Since winning the award it has been a wild and incredible journey that we could never have expected.”

Specifically…

  • Inquimae is now well advanced in its plans to build a pilot plant with an electro-chemical reactor capable of extracting 50kg of lithium carbonate from the earth per day.
  • A new company has been created to license the Inquimae lithium extraction process to major customers in the mining industry.
  • Inquimae is also well advanced in discussions with battery companies about using its technology to extract lithium from old ion batteries.

A few months ago we had an extremely promising new electro-chemical process for extracting and storing lithium in the lab. In the past I would have been very content to publish a traditional scientific paper our work on lithium extraction and receive the positive feedback from my peers in the academic world.

But entering the competition changed all that! Today, with the help we’ve received from winning the Bright Minds Challenge we are on the verge of having a viable business.”

Rethinking lithium

So how does Inquimae work?

Some 80% of the world’s lithium is traditionally extracted from high-altitude salt flats found mainly in South America. Thousands of tons of lithium carbonate brine is painstakingly extracted from these gigantic lakes and slowly evaporated using specialist machinery in order to leave the all-important lithium salts - which are then stored in giant tanks. Not only does this process waste millions of gallons of water, it releases potentially harmful chemicals into the atmosphere.

The two-step Inquimae process works by circulating a current through two electrodes capturing the lithium and chloride ions respectively. The lithium chloride is captured from brine in what is effectively a gigantic battery system, through the slow release of solar energy, while the lithium chloride is then released by reversing the current with the electrodes immersed in a recovery solution.

The process takes just hours. No water is wasted, and there are no harmful emissions.

Says Professor Ernesto: “It’s a far more efficient way of extracting the lithium, but also of storing it. This has been a big issue, not only for developing electronic cars but for ‘connecting the unconnected’. In South America today we have 30 million people who are not connected to electricity grid. We believe that Inquimae will be able to connect these off-grid communities by tapping into the large amounts of stored lithium combined with solar panels.

It is a great feeling to know that we have a real chance now of making a difference.”