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BMW Group Invests in California Startup Lilac Solutions to Sustainably Source Lithium for Electric Vehicle Batteries

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【Summary】BMW Group is investing in an innovative lithium extraction process developed by U.S. startup Lilac Solutions. Lilac Solutions has developed and patented an ion exchange technology that will significantly improve efficiency, costs and sustainability by extracting lithium from brine resources, which are natural deposits of salt water.

Eric Walz    Oct 06, 2021 11:25 AM PT
BMW Group Invests in California Startup Lilac Solutions to Sustainably Source Lithium for Electric Vehicle Batteries

Many auto industry analysts believe that lithium is the "new oil", as automakers around the world electrify their model lineups. Lithium is a key raw material used in the cathodes and electrolytes of EV batteries and demand is expected to grow up to 30 times from today's levels. However, extracting lithium from vast underground reserves is generally not an environmentally friendly process.

That's why the BMW Group is investing in an innovative lithium extraction process developed by U.S. startup Lilac Solutions. Lilac Solutions has developed and patented an ion exchange technology that will significantly improve efficiency, costs and sustainability by extracting lithium from brine resources, which are natural deposits of abundant salt water.

BMW made the investment in Lilac Solutions via its venture capital fund, BMW i Ventures, which invests in promising startups. The investment by BMW is part of a $150 million Series B funding round for Lilac Solutions. 

Also participating in the funding round was SK Materials, Presidio Ventures (a Sumitomo Corporation Group Company), MCJ Collective, and Earthshot Ventures.

The BMW Group has made sustainability and resource efficiency central to the company's strategic direction, which includes the sustainable mining of lithium. 

Lilac Solutions was founded in 2016 by CEO David Syndacker, a materials engineer and an expert in battery technology, with experience spanning multiple battery startups developing next-generation materials and manufacturing processes. The company is based in Oakland, California.

According to Lilac Solutions, natural deposits of salt water contain enough lithium to power the entire world. However, efforts to increase lithium production from brines have for the most part stalled due to environmental and technical challenges that the company and others are working to solve. 

BMW plans to have roughly ten million fully-electric vehicles onto the roads over the next decade. By 2030, at least half the BMW Group's global sales are expected to come from fully-electric vehicles as the company moves away from internal combustion engine powered vehicles. BMW's transition however will require a stable supply of lithium in order for BMW to meet its strategic sustainability goals.

"The lithium industry must innovate to meet the needs of battery and automotive companies, otherwise the transition to electric vehicles will be delayed," said Snydacker. "We're delighted to add strategic partners who deeply understand each facet of lithium supply and support our mission of ramping production."

Lithium is typically extracted by pumping massive amounts of water into vast underground reserves containing lithium salts. The water containing the raw lithium then rises to the surface where it is pumped into large above ground evaporation ponds. 

After the water is left to evaporate in the sun for several months the brine leaves behind a dried mixture containing a mixture of lithium, manganese, potassium and borax, which is separated, filtered and placed into a separate evaporation pond.

The process can be repeated for up to two years until the mixture is filtered enough that the raw lithium carbonate can be extracted. 

This extraction process uses approximately 500,000 gallons of water per metric ton of lithium extracted. To put that in perspective, the Tesla Model S battery pack contains roughly 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of lithium.

Lilac Solutions has developed a novel "ion exchange technology" to make mining lithium from brine more efficient and cost-effective without the use of evaporation ponds, according to BMW.

The company seeks to significantly reduce environmental impact compared to conventional lithium extraction methods. The technology has already been proven in initial field pilots and must now demonstrate that it can be scaled and industrialized. The process could then be used with brines worldwide, even if they have a low lithium content, according to Liliac Solutions.

"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 Indirect goods and services, raw materials, production partners at the BMW Group. "By investing in Lilac Solutions, we are supporting technological progress in the field of lithium extraction, with a focus on responsible and sustainable methods."

In December of last year, BMW commissioned a study that included a scientific analysis of water consumption in the lithium extraction process. The study was co-financed by German chemical company BASF SE with cooperation from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and University of Massachusetts-Amherst. 

BMW is not the only automaker with plans to source lithium sustainably. In July, General Motors announced a strategic investment and commercial collaboration with lithium producer Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR) to secure local and low-cost lithium in Southern California in the Salton Sea region

Like BMW's investment in Liliac Solutions, GM said its investment will help support CTR's more environmentally friendly direct extraction process to recover lithium from geothermal brine. 


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