[INTERVIEW] LITHIUM EXTRACTION WITHOUT POLLUTION IS A CRUCIAL PROBLEM

What was your background before creating GeoLith?

Jean-Philippe Gibaud: After training as a hydraulic engineer, I worked for twenty years, in France and abroad, at Degrémont Suez, in water treatment, research and development and even management. Then I joined a competitor in England before leaving for New Caledonia as the environment and permits director for a major nickel mining project. I joined the Schlumberger company (oil service) which wanted to diversify into water and geothermal where for 8 years I carried out a commercial development activity all over the world. In 2012 I settled in France taking over the management of a drilling company, specifically deep drilling such as geothermal. And it was during the drilling of deep geothermal wells in Alsace in 2013 that I discovered that there was a significant amount of lithium in the hot water pumped from 3,000 meters deep. I told myself it was a shame that there was no technology to improve it. So I created GeoLith, in 2016, with the ambition of developing a technology to extract lithium from geothermal wells and, more generally, from any fluid that may contain lithium.

Why do we need lithium in the car?

JP. G .: Lithium is used in cars to make batteries. These batteries are much more efficient in terms of capacity per volume than traditional batteries that use lead or nickel / cobalt. Specifically, if we replace a Tesla’s lithium batteries with lead batteries, its range would drop from 600 to 40 km and its weight would double because lead is much heavier than lithium. For this reason, lithium batteries are essential and will equip battery electric cars for many years.

Where does lithium come from?

JP. G .: There are two main sources of lithium. The first is mining. Originating from Australia, the minerals are exported to China where they are crushed, treated with highly concentrated acids and then heated, particularly using coal, to extract lithium. The process is very polluting (very unfavorable carbon balance). The second source is found in the “salars”, dry lakes found on the high plateaus of the Andes. These salars, the largest of which are found in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, have a particularly high lithium content. To extract the lithium we will proceed by evaporation in sandbanks. The process is less polluting than the treatment of minerals, but this evaporation in an area that is known to be one of the driest on the planet, generates a significant impact on fragile ecosystems. Today, 50% of lithium comes from the Australian ore and 50% from Andean wages. And these two sources, in addition to posing environmental problems, will not allow to meet the world demand which is increasing by 30% per year. In 20 years, this means that the need for lithium will be multiplied by 50. Furthermore, the concentration of production in a small number of countries poses serious risks to the security of supply.

What extraction solution have you developed?

JP. G .: We have developed a specific material that has the ability to selectively and reversibly trap lithium. For the general public, this process will be like a kind of filter. Specifically, a lithium-rich fluid is passed through this filter, so once saturated with it, the lithium is recovered using an extraction fluid. This cycle can be repeated many times before the filter needs to be replaced. The double advantage of this process is that it allows to treat fluids 10 to 20 times less concentrated in lithium than Atacama salar such as deep geothermal fluids, but also that it is “zero emissions”: it is not just a filter!

How is geothermal drilling performed?

JP. G .: In a deep geothermal project, two wells are dug. The first pumps hot water from a great depth to send it to a system that will recover this heat, both to produce electricity and to use the heat directly (heating). The second well will return the cooled water to the water table. It is on this reinjection well that we will place our technology to capture the lithium. Overall, this operation does not distort these geothermal waters. Lithium accounts for only 0.1% of dissolved salts.

Where is your development?

JP. G .: We launched a pilot, a small installation, in Alsace at the beginning of 2021. We then sent this pilot to England, which allowed us to obtain a contract for the production of a demonstrator which began in early 2022. And then, last June we inaugurated another pilot in Chile. The largest of our pilots offers a capacity of 10 tons of lithium carbonate per year. We are still on a semi-industrial scale.

What are the next steps?

JP. G .: our next step is industrialization. Namely, move to larger installations. We are already responding to an initial call for an annual production of 150 tons of lithium carbonate. An installation in Alsace should follow which will offer 1,500 to 2,000 tons per year. Then we will tackle bigger projects in South America, several tens of thousands of tons per year. This is why we launched a fundraiser to finance the construction of our French filter manufacturing plant. We are trying to raise € 30 million shared between private and public investments and bank loans.

Identity registry

Name: GeoLith

Activity: production of lithium capture devices

Creation: 2016

Workforce: 5 people

Web: www.geolith.fr

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