From The University of Miami (FL) (US) : “Novel method could help increase supply of badly needed ‘white gold’”

From The University of Miami (FL) (US)

12-10-2021
Robert C. Jones Jr.

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With Mert Akin looking on, mechanical engineering graduate assistant Zhiwei Yan connects the prototype of the lithium extraction unit to an electrochemical test station. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami.

Mert Akin, a mechanical engineering graduate assistant at the University of Miami, has developed a lithium-extraction technique that is more efficient and environmentally friendly than conventional methods.

They call it “white gold,” “21st century oil,” and “star mineral.”

But whatever name is attached to it, lithium—vital for batteries that power electric cars, smartphones, and computer electronics—is in hot demand.

The metal, however, is not easy to mine, requiring costly, time-consuming, and environmentally unfriendly methods to produce.

Mert Akin, a mechanical engineering graduate assistant at the University of Miami, has a solution. Recently, in the Materials Lab at the College of Engineering, he repeated his novel technique for extracting lithium from geothermal brines.

And just like before, when he tested his method under the close observation of faculty mentors, the procedure worked flawlessly producing a lithium sample nearly free of impurities in just under two hours—a drastic reduction from the 18 hours it usually takes to extract the metal.

While Akin’s breakthrough method may not have generated any hype or headlines, it has the potential to change the way renewable energy companies drill for lithium and, more importantly, reduce the United States’ dependency on foreign sources of the material.

Most of the lithium in the world is extracted from mineral-rich brines, heated fluids found in rocks deep within the Earth’s crust.

“The conventional way of getting to it involves a process of drilling down and then pumping the brine up into solar evaporation ponds, where it actually sits for a year and a half,” said Akin, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate.

But such a method, he noted, is bad for the environment, contaminating the soil and consuming excessive amounts of water. “It takes the capacity of the UC Pool to produce just one ton of lithium,” said Akin, referring to the Olympic-sized swimming pool on the University’s Coral Gables Campus.

Akin’s electrochemical technique directly extracts the lithium eliminating the lengthy solar evaporation process and producing purer lithium free of sodium, potassium, and the other impurities that are typically found in lithium recovered via conventional mining methods.

“Our method extracts 90 percent purer lithium, and the cost for extracting that lithium is significantly reduced, from $5 per kilogram of lithium to about $1 per kilogram,” Akin said.

Akin’s project, developed under the supervision of College of Engineering professors Xiangyang Zhou and Hongtan Liu, is a semifinalist in The Department of Energy (US)’s American-Made Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize.

As one of 15 semifinalists the team is awarded $40,000 and moves on to Phase 2. Five finalists from that phase will receive $280,000 each and fabricate and test their designs for Phase 3. Three winners will split $2 million in the $4 million competition designed to advance technologies and techniques to support direct lithium extraction from geothermal brines.

As automobile manufacturers ramp up production of pure electric models and as more utility companies merge lithium-ion batteries into their power systems, the global demand for lithium is expected to increase exponentially over the next few years. General Motors, for example, plans to introduce 30 electric models by the year 2025 and to stop selling gas-powered automobiles 10 years after that.

“So, the demand will only skyrocket,” Akin said.

But the United States may have a problem satisfying that demand. The only operational lithium mine in the U.S. is in Nevada, with most of the lithium used domestically originating from Latin America and Australia.

“We’ve got our eye on the Salton Sea, though,” said Akin, referring to the landlocked saline body of water in southern California that contains some of the world’s largest lithium deposits.

He hopes his groundbreaking technique—which has only been tested under simulated conditions in the lab and requires more experimentation, possibly in the field—will eventually become the blueprint for lithium-extraction methods.

See the full article here.

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The University of Miami (US) is a private research university in Coral Gables, Florida. As of 2020, the university enrolled approximately 18,000 students in 12 separate colleges and schools, including the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine in Miami’s Health District, a law school on the main campus, and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science focused on the study of oceanography and atmospheric sciences on Virginia Key, with research facilities at the Richmond Facility in southern Miami-Dade County.

The university offers 132 undergraduate, 148 master’s, and 67 doctoral degree programs, of which 63 are research/scholarship and 4 are professional areas of study. Over the years, the university’s students have represented all 50 states and close to 150 foreign countries. With more than 16,000 full- and part-time faculty and staff, UM is a top 10 employer in Miami-Dade County. The University of Miami’s main campus in Coral Gables has 239 acres and over 5.7 million square feet of buildings.

The University of Miami is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. The University of Miami research expenditure in FY 2019 was $358.9 million. The University of Miami offers a large library system with over 3.9 million volumes and exceptional holdings in Cuban heritage and music.

The University of Miami also offers a wide range of student activities, including fraternities and sororities, and hundreds of student organizations. The Miami Hurricane, the student newspaper, and WVUM, the student-run radio station, have won multiple collegiate awards. The University of Miami’s intercollegiate athletic teams, collectively known as the Miami Hurricanes, compete in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The University of Miami’s football team has won five national championships since 1983 and its baseball team has won four national championships since 1982.

Research

UM is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. In fiscal year 2016, The University of Miami received $195 million in federal research funding, including $131.3 million from the Department of Health and Human Services (US) and $14.1 million from the National Science Foundation (US). Of the $8.2 billion appropriated by Congress in 2009 as a part of the stimulus bill for research priorities of the National Institutes of Health, the Miller School received $40.5 million. In addition to research conducted in the individual academic schools and departments, Miami has the following university-wide research centers:

The Center for Computational Science
The Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS)
Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy
The Miami European Union Center: This group is a consortium with Florida International University (FIU) established in fall 2001 with a grant from the European Commission through its delegation in Washington, D.C., intended to research economic, social, and political issues of interest to the European Union.
The Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies
John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics – studies possible causes of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and macular degeneration.
Center on Research and Education for Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE)
Wallace H. Coulter Center for Translational Research

The Miller School of Medicine receives more than $200 million per year in external grants and contracts to fund 1,500 ongoing projects. The medical campus includes more than 500,000 sq ft (46,000 m^2) of research space and the The University of Miami Life Science Park, which has an additional 2,000,000 sq ft (190,000 m^2) of space adjacent to the medical campus.The University of Miami’s Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute seeks to understand the biology of stem cells and translate basic research into new regenerative therapies.

As of 2008, the Rosenstiel School receives $50 million in annual external research funding. Their laboratories include a salt-water wave tank, a five-tank Conditioning and Spawning System, multi-tank Aplysia Culture Laboratory, Controlled Corals Climate Tanks, and DNA analysis equipment. The campus also houses an invertebrate museum with 400,000 specimens and operates the Bimini Biological Field Station, an array of oceanographic high-frequency radar along the US east coast, and the Bermuda aerosol observatory. The University of Miami also owns the Little Salt Spring, a site on the National Register of Historic Places, in North Port, Florida, where RSMAS performs archaeological and paleontological research.

The University of Miami built a brain imaging annex to the James M. Cox Jr. Science Center within the College of Arts and Sciences. The building includes a human functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) laboratory, where scientists, clinicians, and engineers can study fundamental aspects of brain function. Construction of the lab was funded in part by a $14.8 million in stimulus money grant from the National Institutes of Health (US).

In 2016 the university received $161 million in science and engineering funding from the U.S. federal government, the largest Hispanic-serving recipient and 56th overall. $117 million of the funding was through the Department of Health and Human Services and was used largely for the medical campus.

The University of Miami maintains one of the largest centralized academic cyber infrastructures in the country with numerous assets. The Center for Computational Science High Performance Computing group has been in continuous operation since 2007. Over that time the core has grown from a zero HPC cyberinfrastructure to a regional high-performance computing environment that currently supports more than 1,200 users, 220 TFlops of computational power, and more than 3 Petabytes of disk storage.