The shift to more electric vehicles on the roads means we’ll need more lithium to make batteries. And companies with innovative ways to mine the metal could end up being hot commodities themselves. Monday morning, lithium extraction startup Simbol Mining is announcing that it’s raised $6.7 million in its first round of funding from Mohr Davidow (MDV) and Firelake Capital. The funding will be used to continue development of its process for mining lithium from the brine of geothermal hotspots, which the Houston, Texas-based company says is the lowest cost way to extract lithium.
We first heard of Simbol Mining when the company won the “most promising technology” award from the Cleantech Forum earlier this year. That’s when MDV partner Josh Green also noticed the company, too, and started working on the funding soon afterward. (Green is also one of the large number of cleantech investors we previously noted have backed Obama.) Green says he funded the company because Simbol not only has the cheapest way to produce lithium carbonate used for electric vehicle batteries, but also because it offers a cleaner approach to extraction than the methods traditionally used.
Lithium is typically mined in large salt ponds and extracted from the soil in a lengthy process that can use large amounts of local drinking water. South American countries like Chile have some of the largest lithium sites, followed by China, Russia and the United States. But Simbol plans to focus on mining lithium from the brine streams of natural and artificial geothermal hotspots.
Why is there lithium in geothermal hotspots? As Simbol Mining co-founder William Bourcier co-writes in this paper from several years ago:
geothermal waters have had intimate and lengthy contact with the layers of the earth’s crust that they flow through, resulting in dissolution of minerals and metals from the rocks, and solution into the hot water.
Those metals, such as lithium, zinc and iron, can be extracted through a variety of processes and turned into valuable resources. In the United States, companies like CalEnergy are already working on extracting zinc from geothermal streams at the Salton Sea site in southern California.
Tapping geothermal for lithium doesn’t require the high energy use that evaporating salt water ponds does, but suitable sites need to have a high concentration of lithium in the brine stream, which could limit the selection. Green says he’s confident that there are a lot of U.S. sites with “high salinity brine streams” and that Simbol’s technology could also help revive the U.S. lithium extraction industry, which has been dialed back due to cheaper processes and sites overseas.