BMW invests in lithium extraction startup
To ensure ethical, sustainable, and efficient lithium supply Metal Tech News - October 6, 2021
Last updated 7/12/2022 at 1:15pm
With its sights set on putting around 10 million fully electric vehicles on global highways over the next decade, the BMW Group is investing in an innovative process to sustainably and efficiently produce the lithium that will go into the batteries powering the BMWs, Mini Coopers, and Rolls-Royces rolling off its assembly lines in the coming years.
To help support environmentally sound and resource-efficient extraction of lithium, BMW Group's venture capital fund, BMW i Ventures, is investing in Lilac Solutions, a United States-based startup that has developed a patented ion exchange technology to produce lithium from brine resources with high efficiency, minimal cost, and small environmental footprint.
"Innovative technologies provide better, more sustainable and more efficient access to raw materials. By investing in startups, we are speeding up development of new technologies, stimulating competition and providing impetus that will make it easier for young companies to access the market," said Wolfgang Obermaier, senior vice president of indirect goods and services and raw materials at BMW Group.
This investment by BMW Group is part of a larger US$150 million financing closed by Lilac on Oct. 6. In addition to BMW i Ventures, investors in the financing included SK Materials, Presidio Ventures (a Sumitomo Corporation Group Company), MCJ Collective, and Earthshot Ventures.
"The lithium industry must innovate to meet the needs of battery and automotive companies, otherwise the transition to electric vehicles will be delayed," said Lilac Solutions CEO Dave Snydacker. "We're delighted to add strategic partners who deeply understand each facet of lithium supply and support our mission of ramping production."
While the rise in use of lithium-ion batteries in consumer electronics and other devices has driven a roughly 325% increase in lithium usage over the past decade, this is only a start of the massive new demand being powered by a global push to transition to EVs plugged into power grids charged with renewable energy.
According to "The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions" report published by the International Energy Agency earlier this year, the low-carbon demand for lithium is expected to swell by 40-fold by 2040.
Automotive companies such as BMW Group, which expects at least half of the vehicles it sells to be fully electric by 2030, are major drivers for this skyrocketing lithium demand.
Most of the world's lithium is contained in brines – naturally occurring deposits of saltwater. While these lithium sources are abundant, the traditional evaporation method of liberating the lithium from these salty waters is slow, inefficient, and requires an enormous environmental footprint for the ponds that are filled with lithium-rich brines so that the sun can evaporate off the water over time.
Lilac says the lithium extraction technology it has developed is significantly faster to deploy and more effective than conventional processes, and offers better financial returns. And this ion-exchange process, which involves columns filled with specialized beads that absorb lithium as the brine percolates through, allows the brine to be returned underground after the lithium is absorbed out of it.
This means Lilac's solution has a much smaller groundwater and physical footprint than lithium brine evaporation, an important factor for the automotive and battery sectors.
Lilac's ion-exchange lithium extraction technology has already been proven in initial field pilots and must now demonstrate that it can be scaled and industrialized in the mid-term.
The process could then be used with brines worldwide, even if they have a low lithium content.
The commercialization of this technology is of high interest to BMW Group, which is sourcing lithium directly from the mines and making it available to battery cell suppliers. In this way, the German automaker creates complete transparency and can demonstrate that its lithium is produced with high environmental and human rights standards.
"By investing in Lilac Solutions, we are supporting technological progress in the field of lithium extraction, with a focus on responsible and sustainable methods," said Obermaier.