Cheap Lithium Could Be Extracted from Seawater Using This New Technique

Sea waves during a storm. Image Credit: Shestakov Dmytro/

Lithium is a common element of modern life, helping to power so many of our devices, but due to many factors that boil down to capitalism, this precious resource is expected to become depleted on land over the next 60 years.

A solution might come from the sea, where lithium is 5,000 times more abundant. The problem is extracting it in a way that ensures you have pure lithium, given the presence of many minerals in seawater. Researchers from King Abdullah University Of Science & Technology have developed an approach that can help with that.

As reported in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, the team built an electrochemical cell containing a ceramic membrane made from lithium lanthanum titanium oxide (LLTO). The membranes have a crystal structure that can let lithium atoms pass while blocking larger, undesirable atoms.

"LLTO membranes have never been used to extract and concentrate lithium ions before," postdoc Zhen Li, who developed the cell, said in a statement.

The system was able to create 1 kilogram (about 2 pounds) of lithium phosphate using approximately 76.3kWh of energy, as well as hydrogen and chlorine gas byproducts. The water can also be used in desalination plants to provide fresh water. All of this is believed to offset the cost. The lithium extracted in this way contains just traces of other elements, making it pure enough to meet battery manufacturers' standards.

The approach currently remains small scale so there are questions yet to answer as to the ability for this to be scaled up, as well as the fact that the LLTO not only uses lithium but also needs another rare element, lanthanum.

 This Week in IFLScience

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