My experience as a volunteer in Chiang Rai, a remote area of Thailand that lacks good energy, water and education infrastructure, inspired me to work on sustainability research and develop affordable renewable energy technologies as part of my graduate studies.
A stable lithium supply will play an important role in the development of clean energy technology, but current methods of mining lithium can cause negative impacts to the environment. Most commercial lithium is from land-based, lithium-rich brines which is more economical than extracting lithium from ores. However, there are several drawbacks to current lithium production, including unequal lithium resource distribution, inefficiency of production, negative environmental impact and inability to meet the global demand for lithium. Therefore, seeking new lithium sources and developing new mining technologies are the overarching barriers to reaching a sustainable future.
Surprisingly, the ocean contains vast amounts of lithium, yet much of it remains unexplored. The lithium reserves in the ocean are 16,000 times greater than the identified resources on land, making it the largest potential reserves of lithium available. Moreover, extracting oceanic lithium can remove the geographical limitations of conventional lithium sources. In other words, the ocean can play a crucial role in the development of a sustainable future.
As a master’s student studying chemical engineering with a focus in electrochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a research trainee with Georgia Sea Grant, my research goal is to develop a new lithium mining technology using the electrochemical method. Its unique properties and innate advantages, including fast recovery rate, inherent lithium-ion selectivity, great reversibility and environmental safety, have led us to apply the electrochemical method to mining lithium from seawater.
The most challenging part of the research is separating lithium from other metal ions that coexist in seawater, especially the sodium ion. The two ions have similar physical and chemical properties, but the molar concentration of the sodium ion, or the amount of sodium in a unit of seawater, is 30,000 times higher than the molar concentration of the lithium ion in seawater. Working in Nian Liu’s lab at Georgia Tech, I have developed a lithium-selective polymer and treated it on electrode materials, which creates a custom lithium tunnel, to further increase the selectivity of the system.
Georgia has extraordinary coastal and marine environments. These inherent advantages provide great opportunities to develop advanced marine research. The Georgia Sea Grant Graduate Research Traineeship provides me an excellent opportunity to be involved in this interdisciplinary research to develop a lithium mining method, combining the idea of renewable energy technologies with real-world applications. I am working on improving cycling performance and looking forward to applying our work to real seawater conditions.