International Battery Metals on Thursday said it leased its portable direct lithium extraction (DLE) plant to a customer that aims to begin producing the metal needed for electric vehicle batteries inside the United States within six months.
The move would make IBAT the first company to commercially produce lithium with a DLE technology, a major step forward amid ongoing efforts to revolutionize the way the ultralight metal is processed for the clean energy transition. Lithium is typically produced using large, water-intensive evaporation ponds or open-pit mines.
While DLE technologies vary, they are comparable to common household water softeners and aim to extract about 90% or more of the lithium from brines, compared to about 50% using ponds. No DLE technology has yet reached commercial production without the use of those ponds, sparking competition to be first.
The once-niche DLE sector gained global attention last year, when Chilean President Gabriel Boric outlined a radical plan to phase out evaporation ponds and deploy DLE across his country’s vast lithium reserves.
Albemarle, Exxon Mobil, General Motors , Rio Tinto and others have made their own DLE bets, though none have yet launched.
Founded by John Burba, who helped invent an early version of DLE in the 1970s, IBAT’s DLE facility is designed to be portable after it filters lithium using an adsorption material from a brine formation, thus saving construction costs.
The IBAT plant is less than three acres (1.2 hectares) in size, compared to hundreds of acres needed for evaporation ponds or open-pit mines.
IBAT declined to disclose who leased its DLE plant, but said its customer is a “significant producer of metals and minerals,” including lithium, in the western United States.
The company plans to ship its DLE plant in the near future and start commissioning at its customer’s site.
The plant is expected to produce 4,000 metric tons of lithium initially when online within six months and eventually grow to 8,000 metric tons, more than any existing U.S. lithium project, IBAT said.
IBAT said it will receive royalties on the lithium produced by its DLE facility and that its customer has the right to eventually purchase it, but that it will retain all technology rights.
The facility will be able to recycle more than 98% of the water it uses, the company said. Burba has repeatedly flagged the lithium industry’s high water use as a structural impediment to full commercialization.
“We are very excited for this opportunity to reach full commercialization,” he said in a statement.