World’s largest oilfield contractor tackles lithium’s water woes

Flamingo in Chile. (Image by blaxxtock, Pixabay).

Schlumberger NV, the world’s largest oilfield contractor, is teaming up with a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff on efforts to limit the amount of water needed to produce lithium, a key environmental hurdle for the clean energy raw material.

Boston-based Gradiant, a developer of water treatment facilities, is aiming to deploy technology already in use in copper to nickel mines in Chile and Australia to help reduce the environmental footprint of producing lithium from salt lakes, a process that accounts for 43% of global supply.

Demand for battery minerals — including lithium, the key raw material used in electric vehicle batteries — is expanding rapidly as the global auto industry accelerates a transition away from fossil fuels. But the lithium supply chain has been facing environmental challenges, including over the vast volumes of water needed to pump lithium-rich brines from deep underground in key hubs like Chile.

“The lithium supply problem is very much also a water problem,” Prakash Govindan, co-founder and chief operating officer of Gradiant, said in an interview this week in Singapore. Gradiant was founded at MIT in 2013.

Dozens of companies are pursuing new technologies to lower costs, cut water use and improve the green credentials of lithium operations, including the deployment of direct lithium extraction, or DLE, a term used to describe ways to chemically capture lithium compounds that could speed up production. Most remain at a pilot stage, though US producer Livent Corp. already deploys similar techniques at operations in Argentina.

Gradiant’s process, which Govindan said can vastly improve lithium recovery and allow almost all wastewater to be recycled, has been developed in connection with Schlumberger’s NeoLith Energy venture. Schlumberger last year announced a plan to collaborate with a unit of Tesla Inc. battery supplier Panasonic Corp. on a DLE plant in Nevada.

Gradiant is seeking to raise $100 million by the middle of 2023 to fund expansion plans, including acquiring companies involved in clean-technology water and sustainability, Govindan said in the interview. In November, it raised more than $100 million in a funding round led by a Schlumberger unit and buyout firm Warburg Pincus.

(By Annie Lee and Janet Wu)

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