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Andlinger Center News

October 18, 2022

Lithium-extraction technology pushes toward net-zero emissions

By Alaina O’Regan, Office of the Dean for Research

Sean Zheng, Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow at Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

A team of Princeton University researchers has developed a new, sustainable way to extract lithium, a mineral in skyrocketing demand due to its range of applications. The team, called PureLi, is exploring starting a company to bring their technology to the world.

Renewable electricity is on track to replace fossil fuels in some sectors, but the supply of lithium for batteries and electric vehicles falls short of meeting its rapidly increasing demand.

“Previously, we’ve just used lithium-ion batteries in our cell phones and electronics,” said Sean Zheng, distinguished postdoctoral fellow at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and member of the research team. “But to power an electrical vehicle requires more lithium than is found in thousands of iPhones.”

The new technology uses solar power to extract lithium from brine, water with high salt concentrations, where the majority of lithium on Earth is found. The system has demonstrated an improvement of more than ten times the standard rate of extraction from brine. The approach is particularly advantageous for use in the U.S., which currently mines and processes less than 1% of the global lithium supply, yet is the largest consumer of the mineral. Because of this disparity, securing domestic sources of lithium has become a priority for national security.

The research team is led by Jason Ren, professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate director for research at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

The team recently participated in the Princeton Startup Bootcamp, as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Northeast Hub’s four-week customer discovery program, led by Princeton. In both activities, the team learned skills to help take their innovation from a laboratory-stage discovery to a mature technology that can benefit the planet.

“Through these programs, I was introduced to the concept and practice of entrepreneurship,” Zheng said. “I-Corps helped us set a clear goal for how we, as a small company with exciting ideas, are going to enter the market.”

Zheng said one of the most valuable lessons from I-Corps was in conducting customer interviews, through which the team gained insight into customer needs and learned to develop their vision and prototype systems to fit market demand.

Zheng is currently participating in the new START Entrepreneurs program at Princeton. Part academic fellowship and part startup accelerator, the program provides education, skills and tailored mentorship to aid the transition from academic researcher to startup founder. The team is also considering applying for the National NSF I-Corps program, a seven-week intensive experience that comes with a $50,000 NSF grant.

The PureLi team hopes their development will contribute to securing the supply of critical minerals and advancing the nation’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

This story originally appeared on the Princeton Innovation website.