BMW invests in lithium extraction technology for battery electric vehicles
By Chad Elmore06 October 2021
Technology from Lilac Solutions said to improve efficiency, costs and sustainability by extracting lithium from salt water.
The path to electrification for automobiles as well as heavy-duty commercial vehicles will require a reliable supply of raw materials – along with the battery and charging technology itself.
To that end, the BMW Group, through its venture capital fund, BMW i Ventures, will invest in a process developed by Oakland, Calif.-based startup Lilac Solutions, which has developed and patented an ion exchange technology that reportedly will improve efficiency, costs and sustainability by extracting lithium from brine resources.
Most of the world’s lithium is contained in brine resources – naturally occurring deposits of salt water. These brines are abundant, but resource developers have struggled to bring projects into production due to a lack of cost-effective technology. Lilac said its lithium extraction technology is significantly faster to deploy and more effective than conventional processes and offers better financial returns. The technology allows brine to be returned back underground following lithium recovery; this minimizes environmental impact compared to existing lithium production methods based on evaporation ponds.
The BMW Group is a supplier of batteries to several commercial and marine original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and uses a growing number in its own automobiles. The company has said it is stepping up its expansion of electromobility and will be releasing about 10 million fully-electric vehicles onto the roads over the next ten years or so. By 2030, at least half the BMW Group’s global sales are expected to come from fully-electric vehicles. This will also increase the need for lithium, an important raw material for production of battery cells.
“Innovative technologies provide better, more sustainable and more efficient access to raw materials. By investing in startups, we are speeding up development of new technologies, stimulating competition and providing impetus that will make it easier for young companies to access the market,” said Wolfgang Obermaier, senior vice president, Indirect Goods and Services, Raw Materials, Production Partners at the BMW Group. “By investing in Lilac Solutions, we are supporting technological progress in the field of lithium extraction, with a focus on responsible and sustainable methods.”
BMW said Lilac Solutions developed ion exchange technology to make mining lithium from brine resources more efficient and cost-effective. The company seeks to reduce environmental impact compared while protecting local communities and ecosystems. The technology been proven in field pilots and must now demonstrate that it can be scaled and industrialized in the mid-term. The process could then be used with brines worldwide, even if they have a low lithium content.
The BMW Group has made sustainability and resource efficiency central to its strategic direction. A key aspect, it said, is compliance with environmental and social standards in the supply chain. Eliminating infringements of human rights and environmental standards presents a particular challenge in the case of critical raw materials – as is the case with lithium. For this raw material, BMW Group Purchasing said it has implemented additional measures and is sourcing lithium directly from the mines and making it available to battery cell suppliers. In this way, BMW said it creates complete transparency about the origin and mining methods of the material.
More new investors
The BMW i interest is only one of several companies that recently invested in Lilac Solutions. The company recently announced the final close of its $150 million Series B financing. Other investors in the round included SK Materials, Presidio Ventures (a Sumitomo Corp. group company), MCJ Collective and Earthshot Ventures.
“We’re excited to contribute to the sustainable expansion of the world’s lithium supply through our investment,” said Doug Kuribayashi, CEO of Presidio Ventures. “We believe that the Sumitomo Corp.’s expertise and long experience in the management and operations of mining businesses, and our global network in trading raw materials for battery production, will add value enhancement of Lilac Solutions in the future.”
Lilac will use the funds to ramp production of the company’s unique ion exchange beads, expand its teams of engineers and field operators, and deploy the technology globally.
“The lithium industry must innovate to meet the needs of battery and automotive companies, otherwise the transition to electric vehicles will be delayed,” said Dave Snydacker, CEO of Lilac Solutions. “We’re delighted to add strategic partners who deeply understand each facet of lithium supply and support our mission of ramping production.”