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Can a magic box full of new tech help solve the climate crisis?

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Chuck Marsten, inventor of the ILiAD, stands in front of a fence.

Chuck Marsten, inventor of the ILiAD, stands in front of a fence.

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At the United Nations climate summit this week, more than 40 world leaders said they will work together to bring down the cost of green technologies like solar panels, wind turbines and other solutions to help us navigate the climate crisis.

One of those solutions is more batteries — something we’re exploring in the new Marketplace podcast, “How We Survive,” hosted by regular “Marketplace Tech” host Molly Wood.

Batteries are key to getting off fossil fuels. And a mineral called lithium is a key ingredient in those batteries. Molly spoke to chemist Charles Marston for the latest episode. He’s the inventor of the ILiAD, for integrated lithium adsorption desorption, which can pull lithium out of geothermal brine.

“It’s a compact, elegant package of engineering and chemistry,” Marston said.

“So … it is a magic box,” Molly said.

“It is a magic box,” Marston confirmed.

This invention lives at a geothermal plant near the Salton Sea in Southern California. Molly has some backstory about it. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Molly Wood: Just as a reminder, you know, the Salton Sea is rich with this really, really hot, salty water. Companies are already using this brine to create geothermal power, renewable energy, and they want to try to extract lithium and maybe even other minerals from it. The brine itself is like a crazy nightmare character. It’s supertoxic and corrosive. And it’s really hard to get the lithium out efficiently without having to replace your pipes all the time. So far, it’s never worked affordably at scale.

Kimberly Adams: And so in this episode, you’re talking about something you call the magic box. What is it?

Wood: One of the companies in the Salton Sea invented a device for very efficiently extracting only lithium from the brine. They call it the ILiAD [for integrated lithium adsorption desorption]. So this company sort of set out to solve some of the problems that had plagued earlier players in the attempts to get lithium out of the Salton Sea brine. They ended up creating this — I call it a gadget. Right now, it’s about the size of a refrigerator. Soon, it will be the size of a warehouse. But what it really does do, at its heart, is shake free pure lithium hydroxide, which is the liquid state that it needs to be in to go in batteries with a minimum of degradation. Your stuff doesn’t break down while you’re extracting the lithium. It gets the most possible lithium out of the brine. And it seems like it’s going to be a game changer for this company in the sense that they’ll be able to license it to other companies. And it’s because this Salton Sea brine is such a remarkable character and so legendarily hard to work with, most everybody that we talked to agrees, even outside the company, that it’s a huge deal.

Adams: How close are we to this being a normal thing that happens?

Wood: That is the question. Because, the one caveat here is that even right now, the magic box is only working at pilot scale. But it seems to be just a couple of years around the corner, that by 2024, it could be extracting lithium efficiently in the Salton Sea and other places in the world.

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