The Bright Minds Challenge took place in Amsterdam, where the Dutch company DSM presented the results of this international contest. One of the finalists was Ernesto Calvo, researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and at the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, and director at the Institute of Chemistry, Materials physics, Environment and Energy (INQUIMAE, CONICET-UBA).
The winning team is comprised of Calvo; Victoria Flexer who works at the del Centro de Investigaciones y Transferencia (CIT) Jujuy; and fellows Florencia Marchini and Valeria Romero. Their proposal is to implement one innovative lithium extraction technology much more efficient that the current ones used and environmentally friendly.
About the winning project
South America holds 80% of the world lithium reserves in the salt mines of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. They are all brines (high concentrations of very salty water). “In Catamarca, for instance, there about 30 thousand lithium tons that are used now principally for aerospace alloys and batteries”, the researcher comments.
Lithium is used in cell phones batteries, electric cars, batteries for pacemakers and watches, and many other electrical portable devices. Calvo also mentioned that they are used in lithium batteries to store the energy resulting from solar energy. The researcher also said that there are still several challenges to meet: for example the electric battery of a car cannot overcome the autonomy provided by fossil origin fuel because today a car fed with the lithium-ion technology used by cell phones can work at 160 kilometers and reach 205 km in the future.
There are different ways of extracting lithium. Australia, the world largest producer, obtains it through conventional mining. In Chile and Argentina, which also rank among the main producers in the world, together with China, lithium is extracted through a slow water evaporation process of the salt mines, in pools of areas of 200 per 800 meters and 30 centimeters deep.
“Our proposal does not need to evaporate and does not demand water loss. We do not add chemical substances and it is highly selective, that is, they are not contaminated with sodium, an element that is the enemy of lithium batteries”, Calvo described. The nanoscientist highlighted that his method uses solar energy to carry out the lithium extraction through battery electrodes with a very low cost of energy that is possible with solar energy.
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