Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE)
Direct Lithium Extraction is an umbrella term for a set of new technologies that can extract lithium from brines and other lithium-rich slushes (called ‘leachates’) without the need for classic evaporation ponds. The promise of DLE is that a relatively small processing plant can quickly extract the lithium from these sources, without having to painstakingly separate (ie, precipitate) other elements out of the source beforehand.
It’s important to note that DLE is still a nascent technology that’s shown promise in the lab and in a handful of small pilot operations, but has not been deployed beyond that. Expanding DLE into commercial, scale operations that work with a variety of geologies will take years, and only then will we truly understand its impact.
Still, the theoretical benefits of DLE are compelling, including:
- • Much faster lithium extraction compared to evaporation ponds, possibly cutting months (or even years) of evaporation time down to hours.
- • DLE stations can be built in far more places than traditional evaporation ponds. A DLE station would not require hot, dry weather, or the sprawling footprint of evaporation ponds.
- • After extracting lithium, a DLE station is expected to return a large amount of processed brines back into the water table, instead of letting the brines evaporate away (although DLE may require large amounts of potable water).
- • DLE may be able to recover appreciably more lithium from brines than the traditional precipitation process, which leaves some lithium behind in the solution. This higher yield could make it worthwhile to mine new sources of diluted brines that are not economically feasible today.
These DLE benefits can dramatically increase lithium production by expanding and diversifying the sources for lithium — from conventional brines under salt flats to brines under oil fields, brines under geothermal operations, industrial waste water, and potentially even ocean water.
Not Just For Brines
What’s more, DLE could also be used to extract lithium found in hard and sedimentary rocks. These rocks would still be traditionally mined, crushed, roasted and turned into a slurry (or ‘leachate’), but DLE could then be used to extract the lithium and eliminate the additional costly and environmentally-impactful steps in the precipitation process (see our Hard Rock page for more).
Still, all of this is in the future. The next few years will begin to provide real-world data on DLE's impact.