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Sustainable Lithium Extraction Startup Wins SBIR Award

Lilac Solutions wins Small Business Research Grant from U.S. Department of Energy

Mike M. McMahon | March 15, 2017
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When you picture the quickest street-legal car in the world, you probably envision something along the lines of a gasoline-fueled Ferrari or Lamborghini. But this February an unexpected contender set a new world record—Tesla’s all-electric Model S P100D jumped from zero to 60mph in just 2.28 seconds. The news couldn’t have come at a better time for Dave Snydacker. His company Lilac Solutions, which addresses the growing demand for the lithium raw materials used in lithium-ion batteries, recently received a highly-competitive grant from the US Department of Energy (DOE).

“Sales of electric vehicles are growing at about 40 percent per year with excellent driving performance, minimal maintenance, and electricity that’s cheap and clean,” says Snydacker, who graduated from Northwestern in 2016 with his PhD in Materials Science and Engineering. “Lithium-ion batteries really dominate the market, so lithium is essential.”

Lilac, a startup company focused on delivering unique materials for improved lithium extraction, aims to build a lithium supply chain that’s secure, sustainable, and ready for dramatic growth. The company is commercializing intellectual property from Northwestern in its efforts, including new ion exchange materials discovered by Snydacker and co-workers during his time as a PhD student. Lilac plans to use these materials to manufacture lithium-absorbent beads that will be sold to lithium producers.

An aerial view of lithium brine pools and processing areas in the world's second largest salt flat in the Atacama desert of northern Chile.

Last week the company was awarded $150,000 as part of DOE’s Phase I Small Business Research (SBIR) grant program. The SBIR program provides $2 billion of federal funds annually to qualified small businesses that propose innovative ideas to address critical national priorities. The goal of the award, which is only granted to 10 to 20 percent of applicants, is to stimulate technological innovation and bolster private-sector commercialization.

To-date, no other ion comes close to matching lithium in terms of battery performance. And there is essentially enough lithium in the ground today to convert all of the world’s vehicles to battery power, says Snydacker. But the challenge is increasing lithium extraction in an efficient, environmentally-friendly manner.

Most of the world’s lithium reserves are located in the brine of salt flats, primarily found in desert areas in South America, China, and the United States. The traditional process for extracting lithium involves transferring the underground brine to aboveground ponds where the water is evaporated. Not only are these brine ponds expensive to maintain, but the extraction process also takes up to two years and only captures about 50 percent of the lithium that is present. Conventional processes are also far from benign, leading to water depletion in arid regions and the use of destructive chemical inputs.

“Using Lilac’s materials, our goal is to cut water usage by 90 percent or more and deliver highly concentrated lithium,” says Snydacker. “The materials we’re working with are highly selective and much more efficient than current methods. Instead of taking two years and yielding a 50 percent recovery rate, our process will only take a day or two and will result in a recovery rate of about 80 percent.”

“Using Lilac’s materials, our goal is to cut water usage by 90 percent or more and deliver highly concentrated lithium. The materials we’re working with are highly selective and much more efficient than current methods. Instead of taking two years and yielding a 50 percent recovery rate, our process will only take a day or two and will result in a recovery rate of about 80 percent.” — Dave Snydacker (McC '16), Founder of Lilac Solutions

To accomplish this task, the company’s unique material will be formed into beads and loaded into a large water tank—what’s known as an ion-exchange column. As the lithium-rich brine is pumped into the tank and filtered through the beads, the material selectively absorbs the lithium. Finally, acid is added the tank, and the lithium is released and collected.

The SBIR grant is Lilac’s first large funding award. The money allows the company to expand its portfolio of ion-exchange materials and hire its first full-time employee, a Materials Design Engineer named Mohammadreza Karamad. The new team member is joining Snydacker (Lilac Founder and Chief Technology Officer), Ryan Zarkesh (of Sandia National Lab and part-time Director of Chemistry at Lilac), and Alex Grant (Northwestern PhD student and Lilac Student Advisor). The award also lends credibility to the company and its approach—an important factor for attracting investors.

“Many angel investors have a limited understanding of materials science. The Department of Energy, however, is full of materials science experts. DOE looked at our proposal and determined it was feasible and worth funding,” Snydacker says. “Their stamp of approval is already helping move along a lot of conversations with prospective investors.”

After hitting goals and milestones during Phase I of the SBIR grant this year—including successfully identifying a top-five list of materials with excellent selectivity for lithium—Lilac will be eligible to apply for a Phase II extension in December 2017. The extension, which would provide approximately $1 million in additional funding, would allow Lilac to hire more employees and focus on implementing pilot-scale projects as well as processing and manufacturing its materials. The company would be following in the footsteps of SiNode Systems, a Northwestern spin-out company focused on advanced battery materials that received Phase II SBIR funding in June 2014. Phase II support of Lilac’s efforts would come at a time when industrial demand for lithium is likely to reach new heights says Snydacker.

“The next generation of batteries that will be hitting the market in coming years are solid-state lithium batteries. This exciting technology doubles the energy density of current lithium-ion technology. In other words, if you replaced the traditional lithium-ion battery cells in a Tesla vehicle with solid-state cells, its driving capacity would increase from 300 miles to 600 miles on a single charge,” he says.

But there’s a catch. Lab-scale testing of solid-state lithium batteries currently requires the use of approximately 25 times more lithium than traditional lithium-ion technology. Although experts predict that this number will likely fall to a factor of five, it highlights the undeniable importance of lithium for the future of battery technology.

“When it comes to battery development, lithium will be an indispensable ingredient for the foreseeable future. And as the technology continues to improve, the demand for batteries—and this essential metal—is only going to grow,” Snydacker says.

This week, Lilac was selected to compete in the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition (RBPC) in April. At RBPC, top graduate-level student startup companies from around the world compete for more than $1.5 million in prize money. While 350 teams applied, only 42 were selected for the competition. Snydacker took home $100,000 from RPBC in 2012 with the Northwestern startup Mimas Nanomaterials.

Lilac is developing its materials in partnership with the Flex Lab at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and the research group of Kenneth R. Poeppelmeier, Charles E. & Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern.