US Magnesium (US Mag) and International Battery Metals (IBAT), founded by the so-called godfather of lithium John Burba, are installing what is expected to become North America’s first commercial modular direct lithium extraction (DLE) plant.

Located at US Mag’s existing operations in Utah, the facility is capable of initially producing 5,000 metric tons per year (mt/year). Full commissioning and start up is expected within the next three months, the companies said on May 6. Commercial production is anticipated shortly afterward.

The launch of commercial operations from the modular DLE plant would be a leap forward for U.S. efforts to ramp up domestic production of lithium.

DLE, which separates lithium from brine, is seen as a more efficient method of extracting lithium. It takes less time and requires less space than traditional methods that involve mining and evaporation ponds.

IBAT’s modular plant has a footprint of less than three acres compared to the hundreds required for evaporation. And its DLE technology has been proven effective in extracting lithium from oilfield produced brines, subterranean brine and geothermal brine, IBAT said.

“Our commercial operations with US Mag will advance a productive lithium extraction operation,” said IBAT CEO Garry Flowers. “Given current lithium demand, supply dependence on China and permitting challenges, our expected commercial operations are coming at an ideal time to produce lithium at scale in the U.S.”

As part of the agreement, IBAT’s plant co-located at the US Mag site near Salt Lake City will process brine produced from lithium-containing waste-magnesium salts, the companies said. The resulting lithium chloride will provide feed for high-purity lithium carbonate production by US Mag. The Utah-based company already has the capacity to produce 63,500 metric tons per year of magnesium, 9,000 mt/year of lithium carbonate and other chemical products.

What sets IBAT’s first-of-its-kind DLE plant apart is its modularity and mobility, the company said. The plant is described as having a lego design that provides scalability and lower opex and capex.

IBAT, US Mag Partner to Advance Modular Direct Lithium Extraction Plant
International Battery Metals modular direct lithium extraction technology (Source: International Battery Metals)

Modular, mobile design

In an exclusive interview with Hart Energy before the agreement was announced, Burba said IBAT assembled the modular plant in four weeks in Utah after it was moved from Louisiana.

“We’ve spent around $25-$30 million on it. So, there’s a significant cost differential,” he said, comparing it to another announced plant with an extraction piece priced at about $300 million.

“There are several reasons for that. One is the absorbent efficiency is really excellent. So, we can get high productivity rates. But the other piece is we don’t have a cast of thousands working four or five years to build a plant. This is built within a fab shop,” which reduces construction cost.

Plus, the plant is portable. “We can move this thing anywhere,” he said.

IBAT uses an adsorption material to filter lithium from brine, but Burba said the equipment is also able to use ion exchange if it wants to pick up other metals, such as manganese, from brine.

The DLE technology has been proven effective in brines in Arkansas’ Smackover Formation; subterranean brine resources in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, California, Texas; salars in Chile and Argentina; and geothermal brine in Germany, IBAT said. Each of these areas have varying lithium concentration.

In the Great Salt Lake region, where the plant is located, lithium concentration in brines range from about 600 parts per million (ppm) to 1,500 ppm, Burba said. That compares to about 2,500 ppm to 3,000 ppm found in South America, and between about 220 ppm to 700 ppm in the Smackover.

“We estimate the rate of lithium extraction to be in the millisecond to second range. This stuff is stunningly fast,” Burba said of the technology. “Therefore, we can use really small equipment, and because we can use really small equipment, we can modularize it. So, we get a lot more productivity out of a really small footprint than you would in a conventional plant.”

IBA’s first-of-its-kind patented modular, mobile DLE plant also has been independently verified to extract more than 97% of available lithium from brine. The closed loop system recycles about 98% of the water used in the process.

Lithium resources in the U.S. are ripe for development. The U.S. has identified an estimated 12 million tons of lithium resources in the nation from continental, geothermal and oilfield brines, as well as claystone and igneous rock, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The nation is home to only one lithium mine, but several companies are looking to commercialize DLE in North America.

Standard Lithium said April 24 it successfully commissioned the first commercial-scale DLE column in North America. The Li-Pro Lithium Selective Sorption unit, supplied by Koch Technology Solutions, was installed at the company’s demonstration plant near El Dorado, Arkansas. At the time, the column was extracting lithium from the Smackover Formation brine at an input flow rate of 90 gallons per minute.

Exxon Mobil Corp., Albemarle Corp. and others also have DLE projects underway.

Race is on

The U.S. aims to have a secure supply chain of lithium in place by 2030 as demand grows, reducing its reliance on China and other countries.


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“Everybody knows that it’s really going to take a DLE that works and works well to be able to meet these demands,” said Daniel Layton, group chairman of Ensorcia and lead investor in IBAT. “There’s really hardly any way to get there without it,” given it takes hard rock mines years to come online.

He added, "John [Burba]’s modular tech is extremely quick. [It] can deliver probably a hundred thousand tons per annum in facilities a year.”

The U.S. needs more projects coming online quicker, but funding hasn’t been easy to come by, according to Layton. He called the fundraising environment “terrible” for the raw materials part of the business, yet billions and billions are going to gigafactories that have no raw materials to supply them.

“We need more projects coming online and we need more production. But we need it quick. We need it by ’27-‘28,” Layton said, adding most of the announced projects aren’t slated to begin producing substantial amounts of lithium until 2028-2030.

Other parts of the world are vying to dominate the sector, but the U.S. could become a leader. When companies like Exxon Mobil, Occidental and big players elsewhere—such as Saudi Aramco and ADNOC—get involved, “the business gets healthy, relatively cutthroat, but healthy,” he said. “And that’s what it needs.”

IBAT remains focused on being the “cleanest possible and the fastest to build and lowest cost,” Burba said.

The agreement provides IBAT with royalties from US Mag based on lithium sales and payments for equipment operations based on lithium prices and performance, the companies said.

“If this goes off the way it should, this should be not just a game changer for IBAT. It should be a game changer for the whole industry, for the energy transition...,” Layton said. “We actually know if we pour real money into this, we can maybe get to the production levels we need. And that’s when the race is on.”