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Arizona Lithium taps biotech start up for low-carbon mining

© Shutterstock / Juan RoballoPost Thumbnail

Arizona Lithium (ASX:AZL) has formed a strategic partnership with US-based biotech start up Cemvita. Together, the companies will develop commercial-scale applications for low-carbon lithium mining. 

  • The partners will use Cemvita’s microbial solution to reduce the energy consumption in lithium extraction, also avoiding the damage caused by conventional chemical approaches. 
  • Despite the social and environmental harm caused by traditional lithium extraction, supplies of the critical mineral will have to dramatically increase in order to deliver the global energy transition. 
  • The contradiction between increased need for critical minerals and the damage caused by mining will drive demand for innovative technologies such as Cemvita’s. 

Arizona Lithium will pilot Cemvita’s portable technology, which produces an organic alternative to the traditional chemical agent used to extract lithium from ore rock, at its newly established Lithium Research Centre in Tempe, Arizona. The trial will use sedimentary ore extracted from Arizona Lithium’s Big Sandy Lithium Project, with the Research Centre effectively serving as a technology incubator.  

“We aim to be a model for sustainable development and be the pioneer for Lithium producers to use technology like Cemvita’s. We are excited to see the initial results of the partnership in the next 3-6 months, at which time we will assess further partnership potential”, said Paul Lloyd, Arizona Lithium’s managing director. 

Cemvita leverages synthetic biology to decarbonise industrial processes 

Cemvita uses synthetic biology to manipulate the materials that are consumed and produced by natural microorganisms. Essentially, its platform enables it to redesign microbes so that they are purpose-engineered to perform industrial processes. 

These microbial solutions operate under ambient temperature and pressure conditions, thereby reducing the energy typically consumed during mineral processing and metal extraction. The company says its bio-based mining microbes can extract lithium from rocks more selectively than the harsh synthetic chemicals that are typically used, thereby providing a purer product. 

As its microbial offering reduces the impact of lithium mining on the surrounding environment, it is far easier for mining companies to restore local soils when decommissioning their operations. As such, Cemvita says its biotechnology offers a sustainable, long-term solution for mineral extraction. 

The negative impacts of conventional lithium mining 

Traditional mining is an emissions-intensive industry that consumes vast amounts of energy and natural resources. It physically destroys its surrounding environment, while causing chemical imbalances and toxic contamination that reduce biodiversity and can cause health problems in nearby communities. 

The toxic chemicals typically used in lithium extraction contribute to these issues. When these chemicals are released, they contaminate local water supplies, soils and air. As lithium is generally located in arid territories, water supplies are often scarce. Because surrounding communities rely on these supplies for both their health and livelihoods, the extraction of lithium has led to several outbreaks of water-related conflict. 

Mineral extraction must be rapidly scaled to support the global energy transition 

Although its extraction has its problems, lithium is crucial in delivering the global energy transition. It is one of the five vital minerals used in battery manufacturing, and is the main component of lithium-ion batteries. 

Almost all of the electric vehicles produced today rely on lithium-ion batteries. They are also the preferred choice for grid-scale energy storage, which must be expanded to accommodate the intermittent supply of renewable energy such as wind or solar. 

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the development of lithium supplies is one of the most important factors in the successful delivery of a decarbonised future. Currently, the IEA says there are only enough mines and projects under construction to accommodate 50% of projected demand by 2030.  

As such, lithium extraction will have to be rapidly scaled in order to serve its role in the energy transition. Supplies of additional rare earth elements and transition metals will also be critical, with the IEA estimating that achieving net zero worldwide by 2050 would increase overall mineral demand to six times today’s levels. 

The need for an increase in mineral extraction is already being recognised globally, as national governments seek to avoid becoming dependent on imports from other countries.  

In the US, the Department of Energy has recently awarded $2.8 billion worth of contracts for the development of critical mineral supplies. Other major economies, such as Australia and Japan, have begun forming alliances that closely resemble the geopolitical agreements of the fossil fuel age. 

The mining industry must balance its sustainability priorities 

The mining sector faces a strange contradiction, in that it is under significant pressure to address its environmental impacts while simultaneously expanding its operations in support of the global energy transition. 

According to a 2021 report by Accenture, miners are now championing decarbonisation as it offers new revenue opportunities and means of accessing sustainability-linked finance. By demonstrating the enhanced sustainability of their activities, mining companies could also be able to obtain permits more quickly, thereby increasing their ability to scale their operations as required. 

Such incentives will drive demand for innovative technologies such as Cemvita’s, which could support the mining industry in balancing its sustainability priorities.

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