(Bloomberg) — Breakthrough Energy Ventures, helmed by Bill Gates, and MIT’s The Engine fund are leading an investment round of $20 million for Lilac Solutions, a U.S. startup aimed at making the extraction of lithium less water-intensive and more sustainable.
As the world looks to cut carbon emissions, people are increasingly turning to lithium-ion batteries for solutions such as powering electric vehicles or storing renewable energy. While there’s enough lithium available to meet today’s demand, BloombergNEF expects the market could see a shortfall as soon as 2023 as demand for the metal grows fourfold over the next decade.
About 75% of the world’s lithium is trapped in underground deposits of briny water that contain a mixture of salts. The typical way to recover lithium is to pump the water to the surface into miles-long salt ponds and let the water evaporate. What remains is then treated with chemicals, processed, washed, and filtered to leave behind the lithium.
BNEF estimates that each ton of lithium extracted from brine requires 70,000 liters of fresh water. Making matters worse, much of lithium mining happens in regions that are already water-stressed.
In Chile’s Atacama Desert, for example, mining activity is wrecking the ecosystem and straining local communities. Evaporation pond extraction is also quite slow: It can take up to two years for brine to yield usable lithium.