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Inside Clean Energy: In a World Starved for Lithium, Researchers Develop a Method To Get It From Water

The world needs vast quantities of lithium to meet demand for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage. And the United States is way behind China in securing a supply of this rare metal.

Catching up in this global race may take some magic, or at least a process that looks like magic.

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington have produced magnets that can separate lithium and other metals from water. This approach has the potential to allow companies to affordably gather lithium from sources like the brine used in geothermal power systems and the waste water left over from use by industry.

“We believe that this thing can be big,” said Jian Liu, a senior research engineer at the lab.

The lab has developed a magnetic “nanoparticle” that binds to the materials the user is trying to extract from a liquid. Then, as the liquid passes over a magnetic field, the nanoparticle, which is now latched onto the desired material—usually lithium—gets pulled out.