Scientists develop new membrane to improve lithium extraction from salt lakes

Bioinspired construction of PTIPCN composite membrane for LiMg separation. Credit: QIBEBT.

In a significant breakthrough for lithium recovery, researchers from the Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology (QIBEBT) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have developed a new type of membrane that could transform the lithium extraction industry.

This innovative crystalline carbon nitride membrane shows remarkable efficiency and durability in separating lithium ions from magnesium ions in salt-lake brine.

The study, published in Science Advances, introduces a “congener-welded” crystalline carbon nitride membrane with enhancements inspired by natural biological ion channels.

These ion channels are highly selective, efficiently discriminating between different ions. The new membrane mimics these natural systems, achieving an impressive selectivity ratio of 1,708 for extracting lithium ions from magnesium-rich brine.

This is particularly important because many lithium sources have high magnesium content, which has been a challenge for traditional extraction methods.

“Our approach was to mimic natural systems, creating a membrane with both high selectivity and enhanced stability, which are critical for practical applications,” said Zhang Yuanyuan, co-first author of the study from QIBEBT.

The exceptional performance of the membrane is due to its unique structure, which combines both crystalline and amorphous forms of polymer carbon nitride.

This structure provides the necessary pore uniformity and narrowness to exclude larger hydrated magnesium ions while allowing smooth transport of lithium ions, similar to the barrier-free ion transport seen in natural ion channels.

“The dual functionality of our membrane opens up new possibilities for its use beyond lithium extraction,” said Prof. Gao Jun, co-corresponding author of the study from QIBEBT.

“These properties could make a significant contribution to environmental protection efforts, in addition to improving the efficiency of resource recovery.”

This advancement is timely, as the demand for lithium continues to grow, driven largely by the electric vehicle market and the renewable energy sector. Efficient and sustainable extraction methods are essential to meet this demand and reduce the environmental impact of lithium mining.

“The advances achieved through this membrane technology offer new possibilities for efficient extraction of lithium, a crucial element in the transition to renewable energy and electric mobility,” said Prof. Liu Jian, co-corresponding author of the study from QIBEBT.

Overall, this new carbon nitride membrane represents a major step forward in lithium extraction technology. By mimicking natural ion channels, it provides a highly selective and stable method for separating lithium from magnesium, making it a valuable tool for the future of sustainable energy and resource management.