Tri-Cities scientists ‘magically’ extract metals from water


Centuries ago, alchemists tried to turn lead into gold. Although they weren’t successful, the prospect of coaxing precious materials from abundant sources remains extremely attractive.

Today, scientists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are working with industry to test an approach that uses magnetic nanoparticles to capture critical materials, such as lithium, from various water sources. .

Lithium is an essential ingredient in many electronics and energy technologies, including the lightweight lithium-ion batteries that power everything from cell phones to electric vehicles.

The global lithium market is expected to reach $8.2 billion by 2028, but very little is produced in the United States.

Not only does PNNL’s patent-pending technology potentially give the United States the ability to produce more of its own lithium and other critical materials, it also provides a much faster and cheaper way to do so.

The PNNL is developing magnetic nanoparticles surrounded by an adsorbent shell that binds to lithium and other metals present in water associated with various industrial processes.

These sources could include water from geothermal power plants, known as geothermal brines, or water extracted from underground during oil or gas production. The particles could also be used in the effluents of desalination plants, or even directly from seawater.

Once the tiny iron-based particles are added to water, lithium is extracted from the water and binds to them.

Then, using a magnet, the nanoparticles can be collected in minutes with the lithium hitching a ride, no longer suspended in the liquid and ready for easy extraction. Once the lithium has been extracted, the recharged nanoparticles can be reused.

This technology offers a promising alternative to conventional extraction methods that pump groundwater into large, expensive evaporation ponds.

These processes can take months or even years and impact groundwater management in arid regions where they are primarily deployed.

While the PNNL process immediately gets to work, today’s processes are much like waiting for water to evaporate from a pitcher of lemonade in hopes of recovering the powdered mixture that settles in the bottom.

If this technology were deployed in geothermal power plants, the value of recovered lithium could potentially increase the profitability of this form of renewable energy, which uses water to capture heat deep below the Earth’s surface and then converts it into electricity. .

The PNNL is continuing to develop this technology in partnership with Moselle Technologies, which has licensed it and plans to pilot it on several sites.

This effort and follow-on activities are excellent examples of how national laboratories are collaborating with commercial entities to turn laboratory research into real-world solutions.

For example, PNNL researchers are conducting long-term testing of the magnetic separator system for potential use with oil and gas extraction processes, which could create an additional revenue stream to offset production costs.

In addition to Moselle, they are teaming up with other business partners to evaluate the use of the technology for their lithium resources in Nevada and Canada.

Finally, with an eye on a different set of applications, PNNL researchers are customizing the nanoparticle shell to specifically target other commercially and strategically important elements and minerals used in energy technologies, medical imaging devices , electronics and more.

For example, they are collaborating with Moselle and Geo40 to explore the possibility of extracting cesium and antimony from geothermal brines at a geothermal power plant in New Zealand.

While none of these efforts amount to sorcery, the alchemists of old could be forgiven for mistaking this chemical marvel for magic.

The innovative approach of the PNNL is truly remarkable. It offers the promise of extracting critical minerals quickly and cost effectively. And such innovation could well be worth its weight in gold.

By Steven Ashby, Ph.D., PNNL. Steven Ashby, director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly.

Article courtesy of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Originally published in the Tri-City Herald.



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