Open Innovation Challenges

American-Made Geothermal Lithium Extraction

Open Challenge: American-Made Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize

American-Made Geothermal Lithium Extraction

Opportunity

The American-Made Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO), is designed to de-risk and increase market viability for direct lithium extraction from geothermal brines. The prize does this by incentivizing the development of technologies to improve the current state-of-the-art of direct lithium extraction in ways that lower cost. This is accomplished through a three-phase prize competition, and the innovators are supported by an Industry Advisory Panel composed of industry professionals who are most familiar with the current state-of-the-art of lithium extraction technology

Who Should Apply

Individuals can compete alone or as a group. 

  • An individual prize participant (who is not competing as a member of a group) must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. Participants must also be affiliated with an accredited U.S. institution of higher education. Applicants of technical colleges, community colleges, and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are especially encouraged to compete.
  • A group of individuals, competing as one competitor team, may win, provided (a) that the online account holder of the submission is a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident and (b) that all group members are affiliated with an accredited U.S. institution of higher education. Groups competing as a team do not need all members to be affiliated with the same institution of higher education.

Specifications

Background

Beyond the traditional value that geothermal resources can provide for electricity or thermal applications, tapping into geothermal brines for valuable byproducts, including lithium, presents a promising opportunity. Lithium is a major component of high-charge-density batteries for electric vehicles and grid-scale electricity storage. It is expected that global demand for lithium will increase by 500% by 2050 due to widespread adoption of electric vehicles and grid-scale battery storage, and thus lithium supplies will become a crucial element in the clean energy supply chain. However, the U.S. lithium stock is almost entirely imported, with only 1% of U.S. lithium supply being sourced domestically. Furthermore, traditional sources of lithium—extraction from salar brines in the high Andean desert and hard-rock mining from pegmatite deposits—are environmentally destructive. This combination of rapidly expanding global demand and lack of a safe, domestic supply are the basis for the U.S. Department of Interior’s decision to designate lithium as one of the 35 minerals deemed “critical to U.S. national security and the economy.” The federal government recognizes the need to develop a safe, domestic, cost-competitive source of lithium to ensure American leadership in the transition to a carbon-free economy and a robust domestic supply chain.

Geothermal brines could be one potential source of satisfactory lithium. GTO has funded a number of projects in recent years exploring the potential to extract critical minerals, including lithium, from geothermal fluids as well as from produced oil and gas waters. While many of these studies found that the concentrations of critical minerals in these fluids were too low to be extracted economically, lithium, particularly from geothermal fluids in the Imperial Valley of California, represented a significant outlier. Annual lithium resource potential in the Salton Sea region is estimated at 600,000 tons, which currently exceeds the annual U.S. demand for lithium and could transform the United States from a net lithium importer to a net exporter. These findings have motivated a small but growing effort across private industry, state governments, and the federal government to develop safe, economic, environmentally conscious methods to extract lithium from these geothermal brines.

Possible Approaches

  • Developing electrochemical/electrolysis processes for the direct conversion of a lithium bearing geothermal brine to a lithium hydroxide product without the intermediate creation of lithium carbonate. 
  • Developing new absorbents, precipitants, catalysts, or new processing conditions that can efficiently and selectively extract lithium directly from geothermal brines. 
  • Advancements that improve the yield and achievable product purity. 
  • Advancements that reduce energy and water consumption rates. 
  • Advancements that minimize and/or monetize waste products.

 

How to Apply

  • The following items constitute the submission package and must be submitted through the HeroX platform: 

    • Up to 90-second video (to be made public, not scored) 
    • Cover page content (to be made public, not scored) 
    • One submission summary PowerPoint slide (to be made public, not scored) 
    • IAP assistance request (not public, not scored) 
    • Technical narrative about the problem, innovation, team, and plan (not public, scored)
    • Letters of commitment or support (optional).

 

Prize Structure

The 18-month, three-phase Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize fast-tracks efforts to identify, develop, and test disruptive solutions to improve the profitability of DLE from geothermal brines. 

 

  • Phase 1Idea & Concept: Over three months, participants demonstrate that they have identified and developed an impactful idea or solution that addresses one or more of the technical topics listed in the Possible Approaches section
  • Phase 2 – Design & Invent: Over three months, competitors work in concert with IAP members to substantially advance their proposed tool, component, chemical process, or other advancement concept by demonstrating their design’s promise in meeting quantitative engineering and operational requirements outlined by the team. Additionally, it is expected that competitors develop a plan to test their innovation using a real geothermal brine during Phase 3. 
  • Phase 3 – Fabricate & Test: Over 12 months, competitors fabricate and test their proposed design to demonstrate its ability to improve DLE from geothermal brines. Phase 3 competitors are evaluated by a panel of experts using—in part—engineering and technical performance criteria previously submitted by each team. Phase 3 has up to three winners with a first-, second-, and third-place prize.

 

This set of three competition phases offers a total of $4 million in cash incentives. The funding breakdown is shown in this table:

PhaseWinnersPrizes
Phase 1: Idea & ConceptUp to 15$600,000 total prize pool distributed equally among semifinalists.
Competitors receive a minimum of $40,000 and maximum of $600,000.
Phase 2: Design & InventUp to 5$1.4 million total prize pool distributed equally among finalists.
Competitors receive a minimum of $280,000 and maximum of $1.4 million
Phase 3: Fabricate & TestUp to 3$2 million in total prize pool distributed for the first-, second-, and
third-place winners.

Prize Structure

  • Phase 1: Idea & Concept 
    • Phase 1 submission opens: March 31, 2021 
    • Phase 1 Informational Webinar: April 12, 2021 
    • Phase 1 submission deadline: July 2, 2021, 5 p.m. ET 
    • Phase 1 semifinalists announced, and Phase 2 begins: Expected August 31, 2021 
  • Phase 2: Design & Invent 
    • Phase 2 submission opens: Expected August 31, 2021 
    • Phase 2 virtual innovation pitches with IAP: Expected November 3, 2021
    • Phase 2 submission deadline: Expected November 30, 2021, 5 p.m. ET 
    • Phase 2 finalists announced, and Phase 3 begins: Expected January 3, 2022 
  • Phase 3: Fabricate & Test 
    • Phase 3 submission opens: Expected January 3, 2022 
    • Phase 3 submission deadline: Expected January 6, 2023 5 p.m. ET 
    • Phase 3 winners announced: Expected February 2023.


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