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With continual technological advancements in mobile devices and
electric cars, the global demand for lithium has quickly outpaced the rate at
which it can be mined or recycled.
But, a University of Texas professor and his research team from
Australia and Texas may have a solution.
They recently discovered a new, highly efficient way to extract
lithium and other metals and minerals from water and published their findings
in the journal, Science
The team's technique uses a metal-organic-framework membrane
that mimics the filtering function, or "ion selectivity," of biological cell
The membrane process, easily and efficiently separates metal
ions, opening the door to revolutionary technologies in the water and mining
industries that could create another huge economic growth opportunity in Texas.
The Barnett and Eagle Ford shale formations in Texas are the
epicenter of the fracking revolution.
And significantly, they contain high concentrations of lithium.
And it has been found that wastewater generated by hydraulic fracturing in
those areas has high concentrations of lithium.
Instead of discarding that water, the team's membrane filter
could extract the resulting lithium and put it to use in other industries.
So-called, "produced water" from shale gas fields in Texas is
rich in lithium.
Advanced separation materials concepts such as ours could
potentially turn this waste stream into a resource recovery opportunity.
well in the Barnett and Eagle Ford can generate up to 300,000
gallons of produced water per week.
Using their new process, UT team conservatively estimates that
from just one week's worth of produced water, enough lithium can be recovered
to power 200 electric cars or 1.6 million smartphones.
With thousands of wells being operating in the Barnett and Eagle
Ford, the implications are huge. In addition, the team's process could help with water
Unlike the existing reverse-osmosis membranes responsible for
more than half of the world's current water desalination capacity, the new
membrane process dehydrates ions as they pass through the membrane channels and
removes only select ions,
rather than indiscriminately removing all ions.
The result is a process that costs less and consumes less energy
than conventional reverse-osmosis. The new material operates on principles inspired by highly
effective biological cell membranes, whose mechanism of operation was the
subject of the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
The prospect of using metal-organic frameworks for sustainable
water filtration is incredibly exciting from a public-good perspective, while
delivering a better way of extracting lithium ions to meet global demand could
create new industries.