CleanTechnica: How do you characterize your company — is it a tech company, a mining company, or a combination into something greater?
Robert Mintak: We’re in the midst of a clean energy transition and we need to consider what defines mining and how the application of new technologies can reduce the environmental impact of mineral extraction. Standard is a technology company first and what separates us from our peers is our approach to technology development is project focused. That way you design a process that will not only work in a lab but also will scale commercially while meeting or exceeding the projects regulatory and stakeholder requirements. This way we can best address the numerous challenges faced when building a lithium project and demonstrate that extraction and sustainability are not exclusive of each other.
CleanTechnica: Tell us about Standard Lithium’s Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) process, please.
Robert Mintak: Standard’s approach has been focused on using a modern technology-based approach to extract lithium not just faster but producing a higher purity product and reducing the environmental footprint associated with that. Using the Steve Jobs approach of working backwards toward the technology development, the project drives the process. That principal has been fundamental to our team when developing our proprietary LiSTR DLE process (LiSTR is an acronym for “lithium stirred tank reactor”). Through agreements and strategic partnerships with the existing brine operators in Arkansas, we were able to access large volumes of brine that allowed us to immediately begin process test work. Having access to real, not synthetic, brine in large volumes shaved years off our timeline and saved untold millions of dollars that would otherwise have gone into exploration, permitting, resource development work and infrastructure. Instead, we put that money toward developing a tailored extraction technology built for the characteristics of Smackover brine.
The LiSTR process uses a stable/fine-grained solid ceramic adsorbent material with a crystal lattice that under certain PH conditions is capable of selectively pulling lithium ions from brine and releasing lithium for recovery. The ceramic adsorbent material is loaded with lithium in stirred tank reactors containing the brine. The Li-extraction process takes advantage of the fact that the brine is hot, not a hostile hot brine like geo-thermal but hot enough, approximately 70°C. This means that no additional energy is required and the reaction kinetics for adsorption are ideal. In the second step, the loaded adsorbent releases the Li ions for recovery. The process is fast, efficient, it dramatically reduces the time and land required for Li extraction from months (with evaporation pools) to hours. The LiSTR process is capable of producing a high-purity lithium chloride (LiCl) solution for further processing into battery-quality lithium carbonate. When moved to full-scale commercial production, Standard’s site will look more like a water treatment plant than a conventional lithium operation.
CleanTechnica: You’ve described Standard Lithium’s successes in producing 99.97% purity lithium carbonate (aka “3 nines”). Might you explain this concept a bit more fully? Why is it significant?
Robert Mintak: Standard Lithium has placed an emphasis on producing “3 nines” and higher purity lithium carbonate because quality matters to battery makers. Lithium batteries require a higher purity lithium carbonate, 99.5% and higher, than the lithium that is used for industrial purposes, which is considered a technical grade 98% to 99% purity. The small difference in purity has an impact on the selling price, by as much as 40%. It is also important to recognize that achieving a 99.5% purity does not necessarily mean qualifying as battery quality, what is in the 0.5% remaining is of critical importance to battery makers. Hence moving the needle to “3 nines” 99.9% and higher purity reduces problem contaminants in the final product. It is expected that battery makers will have increasingly more stringent quality requirements in the future.
CleanTechnica: What are the primary sites from which Standard Lithium is engaging at this time in Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE)?
Robert Mintak: The Smackover project in south Arkansas is our primary focus. Standard Lithium is currently operating a first-of-its-kind anywhere, industrial scale DLE plant that is plugged into the permitted, commercial brine operations at one of our project partner’s bromine extraction facilities. The plant has been continuously operating over the past year successfully extracting lithium from the tail or “waste” brine that is produced as a by-product from the bromine operations. The Smackover project represents the fastest and most environmentally sustainable opportunity for new U.S. lithium production. The region has all the pieces required to build a fully integrated lithium chemical business; a globally significant lithium resource with brine already produced in commercial volumes, extensive existing infrastructure, road, rail and water, highly skilled labor force, access to locally produced chemical reagents, geographically on the doorstep of both a growing domestic and global battery market, and importantly when building a project like this a social license that doesn’t exist in other regions of the country.
CleanTechnica: How does the Standard Lithium DLE model compare to a traditional mining model? In other words, how is DLE different than open pit mining, in brief?
Robert Mintak: In simple terms, “DLE” or Direct Lithium Extraction is the process of selectively extracting lithium from a brine solution without the use of large solar evaporation ponds. The benefits of this approach are manifold, including: a reduction in processing time — hours versus months, a much smaller environmental footprint – dozens of acres versus thousands, typically higher recoveries and final purity.
DLE is a buzz word in the lithium sector at the moment, but it is not a silver bullet technology that can be applied on every brine resource. It is important to recognize that every lithium brine resource on the planet is different. Each chemical profile, brine temperature, and hydraulic conditions in the source aquifer are unique. In addition to the brine, there are project related questions; access to low cost chemical reagents, water, power and regulatory guidelines need to be understood before developing a flow sheet.
CleanTechnica: CleanTechnica wrote about Standard Lithium in August 2020, and in the article you noted that Standard Lithium had at the time “a continuous (24/7) operating industrial-scale pre-commercial demonstration plant of our direct extraction technology.” How has the demonstration plant performed? What lessons have you learned as a company? What changes have you implemented?
Robert Mintak: The purpose of designing and running a demonstration plant at such a large, industrial scale is to test, optimize and de-risk the technology, while operating in real world conditions so we can scale directly to commercial with no intermediate step required. Over the past 12 months of operations, the plant has produced terra bytes of performance data which we have used to make optimizations to the process, most recently implementing refinements to improve both reagent and water consumption. We are currently running what we consider to be LiSTR 2.0. The performance data being generated from this current stage will be used to produce an updated mass and energy balance model that will be used for the design and costing work of the first commercial plant and a final investment decision (FID).
CleanTechnica: What are the advantages of having projects that are already permitted in commercial brine production?
Robert Mintak: The advantages are numerous and really differentiate our project from the pack. We are working in a region with decades of industrial development that is familiar with this type of work, not an untouched fragile eco-system. Having the unique opportunity to piggyback off of the existing brine operations, leveraging both the infrastructure and many of the permits has fast tracked our project allowing us to focus our attention and deploy significant capital with the confidence that a commercial development won’t unravel because of lengthy and costly permitting processes. The devil is in the details, permitting with the related risks, costs and time is what kills a project.
CleanTechnica: What recommendations do you have for your lithium mining cohort that is now under pressure to produce, with the backdrop of EV consumerism on the rise?
Robert Mintak: The lithium sector has gone through a couple of boom-and-bust cycles over the past decade with less than a handful of success stories. While aspirations are of course valuable, it is more important to focus on execution and demonstrating what you can do, walk before you run, under promise and over deliver.
CleanTechnica: What would you say to the Biden Administration about leaning toward promoting more environmentally friendly options to extract lithium — like DLE?
Robert Mintak: Standard Lithium has already engaged members of the Administration, through panel discussions and other outreach to demonstrate the advantages associated with our operation. We have also invited administration officials to visit our operation and see what we are building in Arkansas. We are also fortunate to have strong support from the community and state and federal representatives. South Arkansas has benefited from 100 years of oil and gas development and that knowledge, labor and existing infrastructure can now participate in a meaningful way in the new energy economy and be a global showcase for sustainable development.
CleanTechnica: What’s up next for Standard Lithium?
Robert Mintak: I am looking forward to getting my feet on the ground in Arkansas soon. Turning the corner on the pandemic and having travel restrictions removed will allow us to really accelerate our development objectives.
All interview answers are attributed to Standard Lithium CEO Robert Mintak.
Images courtesy of Standard Lithium.
Disclosure: The author owns shares of Standard Lithium.