By Kelsey Kendall

An Old Dominion University research team received a $75,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to find a new, ecologically friendly way of mining lithium used for high-capacity batteries.

ODU’s team, a group of interdisciplinary students led by principal investigator Sandeep Kumar, is one of 16 university teams to receive funding through the 20th Annual People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Award.

Over the next year, Agyare Asante, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, Abigail Berardi, a sophomore in computer engineering and cyber operations, Jack Bruins, a junior in mechanical engineering, and Derik Thompson, a sophomore in civil engineering technology, will work under Kumar, a professor in and department chair of civil and environmental engineering.

The award was granted earlier this year and work is just getting started on the project titled “Production of lithium carbonate from geothermal brine by selective extraction of lithium using a novel ion sieve method.” As the team gets started on the research, each member will bring their own expertise and, hopefully, learn about working on an interdisciplinary team like they might find in a professional environment.

“With this project, we wanted to have a diversified group, because we know people have different ideas and they look at these different perspectives,” Asante said.

Each have their part to play.

Berardi will conduct the market analysis and help with monitoring systems and automations for the adsorption-desorption equipment. Asante and Bruins will work on the design and automation of the adsorption-desorption equipment, and Thompson will work on the synthesis and characterization of the adsorbent piece to the project.

The award goes to teams working on innovative solutions to address environmental and public health issues. Currently, lithium is often extracted from large beds of a briny solution that evaporates and produces the mineral. This is a long process over a period of months or years and is water intensive. There is also an ecological risk if there is any groundwater contamination or other problems.

Additionally, the United States relies heavily on importing lithium for high-capacity batteries used in electric vehicles, which many are turning to as they shift away from fossil fuels. Kumar said the new approach could help with domestic production.

ODU’s team is considering a new way to extract lithium from a “geothermal brine.” The goal is to design a system that uses the geothermal brine to produce lithium carbonate more quickly and with less of an ecological impact.

Over the next year, the students and Kumar will work together on researching, designing and conducting lab experiments before the P3 National Design Expo.

The event’s details have not been finalized, but the expo will provide an opportunity for the students to connect with other teams from around the country, whose projects range from developing reusable face masks from plastic waste to 3-D printed structures to combat harmful algal blooms in water.

“It’s a very good learning experience,” Kumar said. “It’s exposure for them – interacting with the general public who may not know anything about the project and communicating with them.”

In addition, the team will look toward outside companies to seek out ways to take the system, when completed, to the next level and potentially commercialize it.