A research team led by members of the Department of Chemical Engineering faculty at the University of Virginia has advanced to the second phase of a three-phase, $4 million competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE’s American-Made Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize is designed to speed development of technologies and techniques for direct extraction of lithium from geothermal brines found in California’s Salton Sea. Lithium – of which all but 1% of the U.S. supply is imported – is a critical material in batteries for electric vehicles and grid-scale electricity storage.

Associate professors Geoffrey Geise and Gary Koenig and assistant professor Gaurav “Gino” Giri, with industry partner PowerTech Water, make up Team TELEPORT, named for the project’s title, Targeted Extraction of Lithium with Electroactive Particles for Recovery Technology. The team’s concept is one of 15 selected for a $40,000 award and eligibility for the competition’s second phase.

According to a DOE news release announcing the competition’s semifinalists, there is an “urgent need to develop safe, secure, domestic and cost-competitive sources of lithium to achieve the Biden-Harris climate goals and create good-paying jobs for Americans.” The Salton Sea region, where environmentally friendly geothermal power plants already pump lithium-containing brine to the surface, has the potential to supply 600,000 tons of the element annually, which exceeds demand in the U.S. today, the news release said.

The Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize, administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and funded by DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office, aims to address the technical challenges of safely and economically scaling up lithium recovery from brine by incentivizing academic researchers, entrepreneurs and industry partners to innovate new processes.

Phase 2, in which the semifinalists will design and invent their concepts, offers up to five cash prizes between $280,000 and $1.4 million, with no more than the $1.4 million total to be divided equally among the teams selected for the final phase. Phase 3 will yield up to three winners who will split a total prize pool of $2 million. In the final stage, teams will fabricate and test their designs.

According to the UVA group’s project summary, “Team TELEPORT seeks to capture lithium using a selective solid intercalation material, electrodialysis and downstream separation. The team hopes this combination of technology will be able to selectively extract lithium from geothermal brine. The technology will leverage existing solution chemistry to minimize the need for additional chemicals used in current technologies. By Phase 3, the team hopes to create a process for separation and purification that is scalable and space-efficient.”

The UVA ChemE group’s makeup is particularly well suited to the task at hand. Geise, the team’s captain, is accomplished in advanced polymer membranes for desalination and clean energy applications. Koenig’s group specializes in battery materials and battery systems design and performance. The TELEPORT concept also incorporates metal-organic frameworks technology and crystallization, areas in which Giri’s lab has had recent success developing a novel process to manufacture air filtration materials.

Learn more about Team TELEPORT’s approach in this short video.

Team TELEPORT - Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize

Using solid particles to selectively extract and enrich lithium from brines