In June 2017, Professor Ernesto Julio Calvo won the DSM Bright Minds Challenge for Inquimae. Traditionally, lithium - the lifeblood of battery technology - is available through one source and one source only: extraction from giant salt lakes or ‘flats. It’s a very slow process that wastes millions of gallons of water while releasing sodium chloride and magnesium sulfate waste into the air and soil. Or at least, it was. Ernesto’s revolutionary electrochemical method uses solar power to extract the lithium…but with zero environmental impact.
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.”
- 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.”
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.”