The Great Salt Lake Is Full of Lithium. A Startup Wants to Harvest It.

A California startup plans to start construction on a project to suck up water from the Great Salt Lake to extract one of its many valuable minerals: lithium.
A California startup plans to start construction on a project to suck up water from the Great Salt Lake to extract one of its many valuable minerals: lithium.

Summary

Lilac has raised $145 million from Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures and other investors.

America’s biggest saltwater lake may hold a key to the country’s energy future.

This summer, a California startup plans to start construction on a project to suck up water from the Great Salt Lake to extract one of its many valuable minerals: lithium, a critical ingredient in the rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles. The water will then be reinjected back into the lake, which Lilac Solutions says addresses concerns about the damaging effects of mineral extraction.

At its peak, Lilac says it will use a series of pipes to suck up 80,000 gallons of water a minute to harvest the mineral. The company plans to eventually produce up to 20,000 tons of battery-grade lithium a year at its site in northern Utah, located among fields of cattle and pickleweed.

The effort is one of dozens of projects across the U.S. racing to build up a domestic supply of lithium and other battery minerals, with adoption of electric vehicles expected to boom as part of the country’s transition to cleaner energy. The Biden administration is dedicating billions of dollars to strengthening the U.S. battery supply chain and reducing reliance on China, which dominates the global production of battery minerals.

The challenge: finding ways to efficiently extract the mineral from rocks and water while minimizing environmental damage.

“Lithium resources in the U.S. are very large in scale, but the chemistry is very challenging," said Lilac founder and Chief Executive Dave Snydacker.

Lithium extraction has been around for decades, but Lilac says its process will have less impact on the region’s environment than other methods.

One common extraction method pumps briny underground water into vast man-made ponds, where evaporation separates lithium from other elements over 18 months or more. Mining companies in Chile and elsewhere have used the approach, which drains scarce water resources and can leave deposits of toxic residues.

Lilac says its technology is much faster, taking a matter of hours from the time of extraction, while preserving water levels. Its method deploys reusable ceramic “beads" that attach to lithium atoms to separate them from the brine. Snydacker says the company has spent more than 500,000 hours testing the technology on more than 70 brine samples around the world.

Lilac plans to announce this week that it raised $145 million from investors including Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Mitsubishi, the Japanese industrial conglomerate, to help fund the project. Lilac is also in discussions with large battery manufacturers and automakers interested in securing a domestic supply of battery-grade lithium, Snydacker said. It is also working on a pilot project in Chile, he said.

Briny water is among the most promising resources for lithium in the U.S. Exxon Mobil is drilling for lithium-laden brines deep underground in Arkansas’s Smackover region. Other companies are working to extract lithium from brines in California’s Salton Sea.

At the Great Salt Lake, mineral extraction is nothing new. The lake has been shrinking for decades because of agricultural, industrial and other diversions of its feed waters. Extraction of minerals accounts for about 13% of its water diversion, according to a 2019 study. Meanwhile, the lake has become a concentrated soup of minerals, since it doesn’t have an outlet that lets it discharge the ones that flow into it.

A bill passed in 2023 by the Utah legislature pressures companies to minimize use of the lake’s water. Mineral producer Compass Minerals said last week that it had terminated a lithium project there, citing heightened regulatory risks.

Snydacker said Lilac’s process is different because it doesn’t use evaporation ponds, and that it has received a positive response from local regulators. “We’re able to eliminate evaporation ponds entirely," he said.

The company’s efforts are being closely watched after a crash in prices for lithium and other battery minerals in 2023 prompted mining companies to slow expansions of projects and put new ones on hold. The delays threaten to slow the country’s push to develop its battery supply chain, even as lithium demand surges.

Snydacker said it would take about two years for Lilac to build its plant, which will include a refinery to concentrate the lithium into a battery-grade material. Production will build up over time, starting with about 3,000 tons of lithium a year. That will require sucking up about 12,000 gallons of water a minute around the clock.

“We’re unlocking the Great Salt Lake as a resource," Snydacker said.

Write to Scott Patterson at scott.patterson@wsj.com

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