Sitting fittingly in his Tesla Model S outside a massive 11,000 square foot R&D facility, Teague Egan, the magnanimous, energetic, and exuberant leader of explosive energy-technology start-up, EnergyX, sat down to an exclusive interview for our latest issue focusing on renewables. Behind a laid-back style, Teague’s brilliant mind is hard set on executing an opportunity to reshape the world of electric batteries with a paradigm shift in how the world sources Lithium with a unique process for Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE).
With loads of proprietary processes and technology, EnergyX, officially incorporated as Energy Exploration Technologies, Inc., is quietly forging an empire in the booming renewable energy town that Austin, Texas is quickly becoming. Texas, long known for its contributions to oil and gas, has attracted incredible investment in recent years from the likes of Tesla, Meta, Qualcomm, and scores of other technology companies and VC firms. Amidst these, Egan is leading a powerful team of arguably the best minds in the world within the niche of Lithium. Academics and C-Suiters with decades of experience combine in a virtual “who’s who” among leading minds in energy and tech within the walls of a company that has only been in existence since 2018.
And yet, in that relatively short time, EnergyX has already made waves and garnered global attention from investors (including oil and gas majors), the media, and titans of industry alike. Launching full-scale DLE extraction pilot plants in the field is almost unheard of, and yet, Teague and his team have already completed this challenge and are moving on to bigger and better piloting and demonstration phases. But to understand where this moonshot-turned-Wall Street darling (to date, EnergyX has raised more than $21 million from upwards of 5,000 investors) is heading, we need to know from whence it came.
“I Have to Create My Own Destiny”
A born entrepreneur following in the footsteps of his father, Teague Egan’s resume certainly is impressive. Egan has been a successful investor in public-sector energy assets and sustainable technologies for close to a decade. He’s founded and managed successful entertainment companies and along the way just so happened to become the inventor of energyDNA, a patented, multi-component graphene textile fiber technology. Further, Teague founded Innovation Factory VC, a venture capital fund prioritizing tech, life sciences, real estate, and consumer products. Sitting idle doesn’t seem to fit with the serial entrepreneur as he continues to build on his many successes with the advent of EnergyX.
The idea for EnergyX all started when Egan was traveling in Bolivia. As he ventured across the great salt flats in Salar de Uyuni, something clicked. Egan had just completed an Executive Program thesis in exponential technology at Singularity University and was searching for some way to connect his passions for renewable energy and technology. The great salt flats brought that inspiration.
Egan observed the age-old methods for extracting Lithium. Presently, this process is either completed using open-pit mining methods, which certainly isn’t environmentally friendly (thus negating some of the benefits of the end-user “going electric”), or via a seemingly archaic method relying on giant evaporation ponds. The ponds are less environmentally-impactful than mining, however, they require enormous tracts of land that are dependent on unabated sunlight to drive the gradual process of evaporation (an average of 18 months) to separate the Lithium, and typically only achieve 30% recovery rates. The ponds can be somewhat unpredictable as they are subject to environmental variables. As such, it can be hard to determine how long a given batch will take to extract. Greater rainfall can dilute the brine, and significantly extend the time required to produce the final product, making this method somewhat tenuous for a supply chain that is poised to create record demand for the “white petroleum” Lithium is quickly becoming.
Beyond the environmental impacts of pit mining and the capricious nature of weather affecting evaporation ponds, the problem identified by EnergyX is simple: surging Lithium demand and a massive supply shortage. As of 2020, the world requires around 300,000 tons of Lithium supply per year. With the push for more EVs and sustainability worldwide, that demand is expected to grow to a staggering 5.5 million tons of Lithium each year by 2040. Traditional extraction methods simply are not prepared to meet the forthcoming global demand.
Dulcius Ex Asperis: Sweeter After Difficulties
Earlier this year, EnergyX successfully demonstrated a full-scale DLE extraction pilot plant in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, where Egan first had his “aha” moment. That pilot showed an outstanding 94% Lithium recovery rate and provided scores of actionable, real-world data to implement in subsequent pilot phases. From “Brine to Battery”, EnergyX is changing the game within the traditional Lithium supply chain. DLE shows incredible promise, with some 300% greater recovery rates than traditional methods. Additional technologies in EnergyX’s portfolio is Lithium Hydroxide, a direct conversion process from brine showing as much as a 40% cost reduction in the material, and the Lithium Metal direct conversion from brine, with an amazing 80% cost reduction. The result is a Lithium-metal solid-state battery with 200% increased energy density that is cheaper and more quickly made. With all of these achievements, one could hardly imagine the incredible difficulties the young company has already faced, and overcome.
When asked what’s the biggest challenge EnergyX has faced thus far, Egan replied simply, “too many to list.” Egan went on to explain that the pilot project in Bolivia is perhaps the biggest curveball he’s seen. The pilot project they launched produced incredible results, demonstrating in-field viability, and far exceeding projections. That pilot operated in the field for five full months, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Unfortunately, for the next phase, the Bolivian government used a competitive bidding process and EnergyX turned in the requisite data 10 minutes after the deadline. Egan owns this oversight but hasn’t let it deter him. “I’m a silver linings guy,” he remarked of the setback. So Egan and the team took the good from the situation—namely reams of data that no other company possesses based on an actual real-world application. There may still be an opportunity down the road in Bolivia if officials there have a change of heart and decide to stick with the viable solution EnergyX has already demonstrated. However, EnergyX isn’t sitting idle in the meantime. Already the company is moving at lightning speed towards improved iterations of their highly-successful pilot project for several other customers.
Bigger, Better, Faster
In the fast-forward economy that is lithium, the tech-heavy EnergyX can’t afford to sit on its laurels and instead has focused with renewed vigor on the next round of pilot plants. Five more of these are planned over the next several months in Austin. The demand for DLE is just too great not to move forward as quickly as is feasible. These next five pilots will be even larger than the first, with roughly 6X the size in throughput. Slated for 2023, demonstration plants are in the works that are 10X the size of that. With the first pilot containing an estimated capacity of 3 tons of lithium per year, the next five pilots are slated for around 10-15 tons. The demo plants? Around 100 tons. Once scaled to commercial capacity in 2024-2025, Egan expects to be processing more than 100,000 tons of lithium per year.
“I never thought the problem I am trying to solve would become so important so quickly,” Egan says. “We are trying to solve the Lithium supply/demand imbalance.” The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 did well to put EVs in the spotlight and catapulted what was already a changing tide for automakers making the switch to an ever-greater inventory of electric vehicles. Producing Lithium more efficiently and cost-effectively is an opportunity for EnergyX to solve the biggest present bottleneck in the EV revolution, where Lithium is a huge component of the supply chain. The demand being generated presently has magnified the supply-side problem.
“Lithium refining is like having a license to print money.”
– Elon Musk
Egan and his team find themselves in an advantageous position to solve this problem. Giant automakers like GM and Ford are already working to secure their supply chains to be able to produce millions of new electric vehicles each year. As a matter of course, you can’t produce an electric car without Lithium. With such a spike in demand, Lithium prices have skyrocketed approximately 800% from $8,000 to $71,000, and producers simply cannot supply enough, quickly enough. Since the Inflation Reduction Act came into force in August, automaker’s around the globe are scrambling to source all the materials to make EVs; securing deals to ensure the critical materials are available to meet what’s expected to be exponential demand in the coming years. And let’s not forget, cars and trucks aren’t the only EVs being developed—the United States’ first all-electric airplane developed by Eviation recently took its prototype for a successful test flight. While not yet commercially viable, the electric plane relies on batteries similar to Tesla, which, you guessed it, require Lithium.
This is fundamentally a paradigm shift in an industry that was relatively quiet until just the last few years. “We are disrupting conventional methods for producing Lithium,” says Egan. The demand for the global supply of Lithium simply wasn’t there until EVs became popular and started being produced at scale. Now, with government incentives and changing public sentiment, Lithium is suddenly in the spotlight. “All of a sudden, we need exponential quantities of Lithium,” Egan explains. “Existing methods are not equipped to meet that [demand].” DLE is a whole new way of thinking about how our society produces this sought-after battery metal.
“Lithium Extraction Now is a Hatchet—We’re a Chainsaw”
What Egan observed in Bolivia is what many think of when it comes to Lithium extraction, namely giant evaporation ponds going as far as the eye can see. As mentioned, these ponds can take upwards of 18 months to have the Lithium brine make it through the sequences of ponds to produce Lithium. In the end, producers only recover around 30%, making for a huge loss rate and a lot of operational waste. EnergyX has essentially reinvented the natural evaporative method to create a mechanical, controlled separation with high recovery rates and shorter production times. This all equates to much-improved economics.
With over 50 patents in EnergyX’s portfolio, they are looking to solve one of the biggest problems on the planet in the coming years: sustainable, secure power. Global energy security has been dealt hammer blows with skyrocketing inflation, Putin’s war in Ukraine, supply chain woes, and extreme volatility. When asked how EnergyX is adapting to these changing conditions, Egan responded, “All we can do is focus on executing the task at hand.” The company is laser-focused on developing the technology that helps quicken the production of Lithium.
With both the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure bills put out by the Whitehouse, the opportunities are ripe for grants, government support, partnerships, and overall increased demand going forward. EnergyX, therefore, is in a rare position to capitalize on the present opportunities being laid in the laps of those that can solidify themselves as integral parts of the EV supply chain.
Portfolio of Breakthrough Technologies
EnergyX is developing a broad portfolio of DLE technologies that are completely changing the game. These technologies combine near-instantaneous separation and high recovery rates. One of the hallmarks of these technologies is the EnergyX LiTAS™ technology portfolio, standing for Lithium Ion Transport and Separation. Rather than a single product, the LiTAS™ line includes proprietary membranes, solvent extraction technology, as well as ion absorption. These multiple approaches can be used singularly or combined to complete a process of extracting, recovering, separating, and concentrating Lithium to create a pure and concentrated stream of the sought-after alkali metal.
Rather than completely replace the traditional method of evaporation ponds, Gen 1 LiTAS™ technologies augment the current process by tying directly into the existing infrastructure at brine sites, truly anywhere in the world. EnergyX takes the concentrated brine and further processes it to both reduce overhead and improve efficiencies and recovery rate. With a relatively low cost to implement, LiTAS™ presents an extremely viable way to make the switch to DLE through a phased approach. To compare, evaporation ponds presently take around 18 months from start to finish, whereas the LiTAS™ systems can complete the process in just a few days. Remember too, the recovery rates are far superior—as much as 3X greater. Generation 2 allows for deployment to greenfield sites, without ponds, where brine directly from the wellhead is treated and processed. Generation 3, or Direct Conversion™, is when the fun really begins with direct from brine to either lithium hydroxide or lithium metal as a direct conversion set-up. A phased approach helps to aid existing infrastructure now while allowing ample time to retrofit existing operations to a pondless future.
With environmental, social, and governance (ESG) taking center stage, bear in mind that evaporation ponds require approximately half a million gallons of fresh water per ton of lithium produced. Using so much freshwater to extract the Lithium destined for an EV that’s supposed to be “eco-conscious” is a bit of a dichotomy. Alternatively, EnergyX’s DLE requires just a few hundred gallons. In the end, it’s also about half the cost. At its core, LiTAS™ technology significantly increases the yields of Lithium from the same brines that are already being pumped today. In this way, it has created an environmentally and socially-conscious way to maximize both resource recovery and asset utilization—hallmarks of ESG investing. From its inception, EnergyX has made sustainability, global warming, carbon emissions, and its environmental footprint key issues that the company needs to address and manage going forward.
The reason behind a portfolio of DLE technologies is simple—no single technology fits all brine types. The LiTAS™ portfolio contains the requisite membranes, solvents, ion exchange, and a host of other direct conversion tech to remain viable across different brines from global customers in various locations. Having technology that is both scalable and modular means greater ease of deployment for miners and producers. The selling point is that these customers can expect greater rates of return for their investment in EnergyX technology and better margins on the Lithium they produce. In fact, LiTAS™ brine extraction costs around $2,500 a ton whereas evaporation can run anywhere from $3,750 to $4,200 a ton. Even further topping the scales is mining which can cost between $4,500 to $8,000 a ton. The advantage EnergyX’s LiTAS™ technology presents is simple: cheaper, faster, and more sustainable Lithium.
As for timelines, EnergyX has just completed its initial pilot plant and is actively developing additional units to test. By 2023, the long-awaited demo plant is slated to come online. The demo plant offers two full-size units within containerized systems. In 2024, full-scale stage one production is slated to begin with a projected 45,000 metric tons per year expected. 2025 sees commercial stage two with up to 150,000 metric tons slated, with 2026 offering the third and final stage of commercialization with a projected 500,000 tons of lithium per year. In case the math eludes you, that’s just four years from now for the full commercialization of EnergyX’s groundbreaking technology. With any other company, where corporate bureaucracy hampers creative innovation, such an aggressive timeline may seem audacious. Seeing how far the company has come since 2018, with Egan at the helm, and his move fast at all costs motto, EnergyX seems well positioned to reach, if not exceed these goals.
Another breakout is the EnergyX SoLiS™ solid-state lithium metal battery system. Looking forward, improving battery technology is extremely important for increasing the range, cycle life, energy density and charge time of electric vehicles to make them universally viable. Eviation’s electric airplane we mentioned above did, in fact, fly during its test flight. But the current batteries modeled after Tesla’s are in no way viable to carry any payload through the air. Eviation admits that the final design for its plane will change as development is dependent on the advancement of battery technology. Across the spectrum, multi-modal demand abounds for the types of batteries EnergyX is actively developing.
Within their SoLiS™ battery cells, they have proprietary technology that increases the amount of energy that can be stored. The batteries have an EnergyX-original in their solid-state electrolyte technology. The system they developed allows for the use of a lithium metal anode, which is the most efficient way to store the maximum amount of energy in a minimal amount of space. Taking into account space constraints moving forward with electric vehicles, Teague and his team are engineering for the future of energy. As batteries are crucial for the energy revolution, it makes sense that the King of Lithium would also have developed a vastly superior battery system over anything on the market currently.
Is There Competition?
When asked about competition in their space, Egan was quick to explain, “We were one of the firsts…and we’ve surpassed other startups in terms of development. However, there is no doubt that Lithium refining is a big business, and now we’re seeing companies like Koch, Dupont, and a host of others starting to get into the business through joint-ventures, partnerships, subsidiaries, and other avenues.” Rather than something to keep Teague and the crew up at night, the beauty of more companies looking to break into the Lithium game lies in the potential to license some of the proprietary technology EnergyX has already developed. Remember that EnergyX has developed a method for protecting its intellectual property through a robust patent strategy on its key technologies.
In the geopolitical space, China has dominated battery manufacturing for years. The U.S. is trying to play catch up, and Teague sees the recent legislation as positive steps as he positions EnergyX as an integral piece of the Lithium supply chain. The “Lithium Triangle,” composed of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, holds some 60-75% of the world’s known Lithium reserves. The new energy economy that’s dependent on Lithium for producing greater numbers of EVs and batteries may make this area what OPEC and the Middle East are to oil. Having already successfully piloted EnergyX in Bolivia, the company certainly has the working knowledge for real-world implementation required to operate in what can be tenuous emerging markets.
It’s All Who You Know
Beyond technology, EnergyX is developing key relationships with its customers and investors, as well. Lithium producers are shipping brines to EnergyX’s Austin headquarters and engaging in discussions for increasing the number of pilot deployments. Battery manufacturers are looking to test EnergyX’s SoLiS™ solid-state electrolyte and lithium metal anodes with their own active cell materials. Finally, Tier 1 automotive manufacturers are lining up to inquire about LiTAS™ and other mutually beneficial arrangements within their supply chains.
With a $450 million investment commitment from Global Emerging Markets Group (GEM) tied to its initial public offering, EnergyX is building a substantial “war chest” (Teague’s words in a recent Reuters interview) from which to scale and develop commercially. But GEM isn’t the only large-scale investor courting EnergyX. These investments and those sourced through several private funding rounds, crowdfunding, and private offerings to retail investors offer a substantial war chest indeed.
The Way Forward
Three years ago, in 2019, and just one year after the company’s inception, Teague Egan sat down to create a 10-year master plan. Strategic plans rarely venture so far into the future but that’s exactly where Teague’s head is at. The problem going forward seems quite simple. The world needs more lithium. More electric vehicles on the road mean greater demand. Incentivizing electric vehicle manufacturers and owners alike makes them more economically viable to more households. Like a fortune teller looking over their own destiny, Teague also identified energy storage and battery power for homes and businesses. With so many different industries all looking to battery manufacturers (and battery manufacturers, in turn, looking to lithium refiners), the exponential demand growth is already very real.
Beyond the rise in the number of everyday items requiring batteries lies the need for advanced capacity. Teague saw that need too, noting the range anxiety and power outages plaguing early adopters of electric vehicles. Long-term goals like the “1000 mile battery” and a “battery that can power a home for a month” are the moonshots that are becoming realities within the hallowed halls of the EnergyX research and development facilities in Austin.
As mentioned, Lithium prices are currently through the roof and breaking records. In mid-September, the price per ton was a staggering $71,000 a ton. Prices climb because the demand is so great and production is lacking. The entire supply chain for batteries and electric vehicles is still quite dependent on miners who are not able to keep up with rising global demand using outdated processes. The supply chain woes post-COVID that have snarled markets has affected lithium as well. Even though lithium miners may have huge sway over the supply chain, they aren’t prepared to execute until they modernize and retrofit existing operations. In walks EnergyX. Remember the phased approach where Gen 1 LiTAS™ technology augments existing infrastructure at evaporation ponds? By anticipating the need for early and rapidly developing solutions for improved extraction that’re also sustainable, Egan has expertly positioned EnergyX to deliver the solution the mining industry so desperately needs.
The DLE technology in LiTAS™ is undoubtedly a game changer. The piloting of real-world lithium extraction in the field proved, beyond a shadow of doubt, that these systems are not only viable, but they are also vastly superior in many different aspects including recovering 3X the amount of lithium in mere days rather than months, all in a sustainable manner.
The world cannot simply identify the need for more EVs as a means to produce greater global sustainability if it relies on age-old extraction technologies like evaporation ponds and pit mining. Rather, world leaders must take on the mentality of Teague Egan. Look to the future and engineer your present to get there. “Going green” is abjectly meaningless when the process to build your vehicle is anything but. LiTAS™ promises not only more sustainability, but greater capacity. Greater capacity means greater supply. Securing the supply chain with advanced technology that replaces the antiquated, inefficient, and unsustainable practices used today ushers in the global energy security our world so desperately needs.
Published at Fri, 04 Nov 2022 09:21:44 -0700