Meet The Disruptors: Jack Lifton Of One World Lithium On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your…

Patrick Swanson / September 23,2022
Meet The Disruptors: Jack Lifton Of One World Lithium On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your…

Meet The Disruptors: Jack Lifton Of One World Lithium On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

You do not find truly disruptive innovations from very large companies. If you truly want transformative, disruptive innovations, that will be found from an emerging enterprise. The largest companies can’t simply put aside how much money they have already invested (sunk costs) in the old technology.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jack Lifton.

Jack Lifton began his career in 1962 as a physical chemist specializing in the ultra-purification of rare metals and the preparation of their chemical compounds and alloys for use in the solid-state electronics and energy storage industries. He coined the now widely-used term “technology metals” in 2007 to describe those metals whose electronic properties enable the miniaturization of electronic technologies. In addition to his Advisor — Physical and Chemical Engineer role with One World Lithium, he also serves as Editor-in-Chief for Critical Materials and is the Chairman of the Critical Minerals Institute,

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was still in graduate school in 1962 when I first worked on the electronic properties of lithium on a contract with the then Lithium Corporation of America to look for electronic uses of lithium. It was the age of scientific advancement that began with WWII’s enormous deployment of capital to make marginal materials available not just for study but for use no matter (then) the cost. Uranium, plutonium, germanium, gallium, tellurium, and the rare earths, were all, for the first time, produced in quantity and used to create atomic weapons, portable radio and radar, practical electronic television, and right after the war, the transistor.

I was a Sputnik inspired student of science. We patriotic high school students were told that it was imperative to beat the Russians in rocketry after their German scientists beat our German scientists to deploying SPUTNIK, a MOUSE, A minimum orbital unmanned satellite of the earth. In college we were thrilled and inspired by John Kennedy’s admonition to “land a man on the moon in this decade and bring him safely back to earth.”

I later did my part in that program by developing a method to deposit cadmium sulfide in tubes the diameter of a human hair which allowed the construction of a solid-state image intensifier (used in night vision binoculars) for the Army and NASA.

Did I mention that my group made the first memory chip constructed in Michigan and that I actually made the first solid state memory cell that came to the market 50 years later as the SSD? My employer came up with the concept. My job was to produce an example.

You can see I like to reminisce, and I have a lot of stories about the development of modern electronics, energy storage, and critical materials’ processing.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The critical elements of today were mostly laboratory curiosities up until WWII. What are critical elements? Energy critical elements (ECEs) are elements integral to advanced energy production, transmission, and storage. This category includes lithium, cobalt, selenium, silicon, tellurium, indium, and rare earth elements (REEs).

After WWII, there was a flowering of production of all these new critical element materials and the ones we know today are the ones that survived due to their utility. For example, today, you can make a mini magnet that is as strong as an iron magnet which was totally unknown decades ago as “researchers have created extremely small, thermally stable magnets. These nanoparticles have magnetic properties comparable to some rare earth magnets, the strongest permanent magnets ever created, but at sizes as small as 5 nanometers, a million times smaller than an ant.”

At One World Lithium, we are developing game-changing direct lithium extraction (DLE) technologies. How is DLE defined? The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) states: “DLE technologies can be broadly grouped into three main categories: absorption using porous materials that enable lithium bonding, ion exchange, and solvent extraction.

Scaling up any of these techniques to full production capability remains a challenging task. For example, developing a solid material that bonds with just lithium is a huge challenge for use in geothermal brine that contains many minerals and metals. Successful DLE implementation will depend on expanding innovation and creating new technologies.”

“It’s such a game changer. There are huge opportunities,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told an energy conference in April 2022 about DLE.

Lithium is the ‘driving’ force behind electric vehicles, but the industry is not able to keep pace with demand. In February 2022, the Biden administration announced plans to invest $2.9 billion to strengthen the battery supply chain and the production of advanced batteries. New technologies that will expand the sources of the supply of lithium must fill the gap.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal, new lithium extraction technologies are attracting attention as these “methods “could help increase supplies, while attracting investors for their potential to speed up production and reduce the environmental impact compared with most current lithium-extraction methods, are, so, far unproven at commercial scale.”

So, what’s disruptive about the DLE technology developed by One World Lithium? In March 2022, One World Lithium announced the signing a licensing agreement with the US Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) division for a patent developed by the NETL for selectively recovering lithium from solutions of mixed metallic ions.

One World Lithium Inc.’s option agreement with the US Department of Energy and its National Energy Technology Laboratories (NETL) is focused on the potential to profitably separate high purity lithium carbonate from a brine. The DOE patent is an advanced direct lithium extraction (DLE) process for the extraction of lithium from natural brines, rapidly generating a pure lithium carbonate.

The method uses a unique multi-step high pressure/temperature application of carbon dioxide injection-mixing to ultimately directly and selectively precipitate lithium carbonate from brines. One World’s DLE technology competes favorably vs. competitors since:

  • The process requires no solvent, electrodes, membrane, or sorbents and only uses carbon dioxide which can be sourced commercially or from industrial waste streams or even ambient air.
  • It significantly reduces capital and operation costs, process time, energy requirements, and, paradoxically, overall carbon dioxide emissions.
  • The process is fully operational at the brine source, eliminating transportation of brine derived solids to a chemical processing facility to form pure lithium carbonate.
  • Deployment of this technology will reduce dependence on foreign lithium sources.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While the experience is not ‘funny,’ it was a great life lesson and speaks to lost opportunities and what can be learned from that. The catalytic converter (a device built in the exhaust system of a motor vehicle which includes a catalyst for converting pollutant gases into less harmful ones) was invented by Eugene Houdry, a French mechanical engineer in the 1950s. However, manufacturing development started in earnest after the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions control regulations began in the early 1960s. The USA made the fitting of a exhaust emission control catalytic converter mandatory beginning in the 1976 model year.

The catalyst component of a catalytic converter is usually platinum (Pt), along with palladium (Pd), and rhodium (Rh). All three of these platinum group metals are rare but have a broad range of applications in addition to catalytic converters. Back in the 70’s, I contracted with a major auto manufacturer to collect and recycle used catalytic converters. However, timing is everything. While this proved to be an extremely lucrative business in the 1980’s and ’90s, with widespread use of the part beginning around 1975, before that there simply were not enough catalytic converters around to recycle as American cars are recycled, on average, once every 12 years. People I know who got into that business then made a fortune. Needless to say, I was correct that there was a huge market for catalytic component recycling, but I was ahead of my time.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Stanford Ovshinsky, who was my first employer, and the inventor of the phase-change memory, the precursor of the solid-state memory that is used in computers today. Ovshinsky was an inventor, engineer and scientist who was granted over 400 patents predominately in energy and information. Stan transformed industries and made groundbreaking contributions to sustainable energy and information technology including the nickel-metal hydride battery, which has been widely used in laptop computers, digital cameras, cell phones, and electric and hybrid cars; continuous web multi-junction flexible thin-film solar energy laminates and panels; flat screen liquid crystal displays; rewritable CD and DVD computer memories; hydrogen fuel cells; and nonvolatile phase-change electronic memories.

I worked with Ovshinsky at a company he founded, Energy Conversion Devices, which was at the forefront as a development laboratory whose products built new industries, many which aimed to make fossil fuel obsolete. ECD continued (through joint ventures and license partners) to be a leading solar energy and battery production firm).

I was going to leave Stan’s company as I was looking to complete my master’s degree. Stan said to stop and told me that I would learn infinitely more working for him than in school. I believed him and I did just that I worked alongside him as he was developing the original solid state memory unit. Decades later, Samsung came out with a variation of Stan’s invention — 40 years is generally the time it takes ordinary folks to learn anything.

Stan was a 10th grade dropout who created entire industries who Smithsonian magazine dubbed the ‘most prolific inventor you never heard of. Their article says that “it’s hard to look around in today’s technology-driven world and not see something that exists because of inventor Stanford R. Ovshinsky. When you turn your flat-screen TV on with the click of a remote, when a Prius silently drives past, when you see solar panels powering a home, when you save a photo on your smartphone, you have Ovshinsky, in part, to thank.”

Meet The Disruptors: Jack Lifton Of One World Lithium On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your…

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

You do not find truly disruptive innovations from very large companies. If you truly want transformative, disruptive innovations, that will be found from an emerging enterprise. The largest companies can’t simply put aside how much money they have already invested (sunk costs) in the old technology.

Consider lithium processing. Here in the United States where we don’t recycle our valuable energy metals, we are now trying to get in the game and start lithium mining in force. For our world to reach its environmental goals, it is important to understand the necessity of acquiring an ample supply of lithium from geopolitically stable countries.

Chile and Australia are the largest current producers of lithium. Australia, China and Chile are currently cited as the top three reserves holders, eclipsing the rest of the world’s reserves and China dominates the global supply of refined lithium products. As EV demand is now skyrocketing, stable countries with major lithium resources are starting to play a greater role in the world’s energy shift, with the goal of creating a powerful positive feedback loop of stability, prosperity and industry leadership. The goal is to convert these resources to reserves and drive significant “new” production.

The United States holds about 8 million metric tons of lithium in reserve, ranking it among the top five countries in the world, reports the USGS. Yet it only currently produces about 1% of the world’s supply at one solitary lithium brine mine in Nevada called Silver Peak, run by Albemarle Corp.

Lithium is the clear incumbent metal of choice in the race to use rechargeable batteries as part of future energy consumption. The paradigm shift is accelerating, and as lithium-ion batteries are more widely used in automobiles and power storage devices, demand is accelerating as well.

Lithium extraction processes use a lot of water — approximately 500,000 gallons per metric ton of lithium produced. Mining can consume the majority of a region’s water, which negatively impacts the community and reduces the number of locations that are feasible. Lithium extraction technologies also have the potential for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools, or membrane filters, into the water supply. This includes hydrochloric acid, which may be created in the processing of lithium, and waste products that are filtered out of the brine.

This is why direct lithium extraction technology (DLE) will be the gamechanger. And, yes, the DLE innovation that takes hold will not come from a giant corporation, but a nimble upstart. You wait and see! DLE techniques dramatically improve lithium recovery rates, increase the concentration of lithium and eliminate 99% of impurities.

Can you share some of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  • When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” ― Jonathan Swift, Irish Satirist. I think to my time working for the great Stanford Ovshinsky and he widely mocked the scientific community in his early career. Later, however, it was not unusual to see Nobel-prize winning scientists in his research lab. It’s a win when the dunces depart and the fellow geniuses take notice.
  • Natural selection is called economic viability — I am continually approached by companies showcasing the next-big thing. However, these innovations are usually tripped up by the day-to-day realities of what it actually costs to bring that innovation to the market. Universities often shower money on scientists who generally have no business sense. When someone comes up to me with a new way to process lithium or any rare earths, I ask what will it cost to process kilogram.
  • Retirement means doing what you have fun doing. — After my ‘retirement’ over twenty years ago, I became busier than ever, and having fun doing what I love. Helping companies understand the value and path forward for their critical elements/rare earth projects as well as plot out the most effective and low-cost extraction and refining processes continues to be a challenge I love and have decades of experience in.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

First and foremost, my goal is to see that One World Lithium’s Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology becomes the ‘gold standard,’ or should I say ‘lithium standard’ in the industry. Yes, One World Lithium is a nimble, emerging company, and having reviewed most of the available DLE technologies on the horizon, I believe that One World Lithium’s is the best.

My advisory group, Jack Lifton LLC, advises governmental agencies, both at home and abroad, on metals industries supply chain issues and engages in extensive due diligence on mining, refining, and the fabrication of metals for financial institutions globally.

I am a member of numerous professional societies and a frequent speaker at both professional and industry events on both the markets for technology metals and materials, and on the use of new and newly applied technologies for the extraction, refining and fabrication of rare metals and materials.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Because my mentor Stan Ovshinsky was among a very small list of American inventors who helped to shape the modern world over the past century, but yet remains largely unknown by the masses, I recommend that your readers review his personal stories and contributions as profiled in the book, Inventing Modern America.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I hope climate science becomes a big thing. And then what I want is electrical engineers to solve the world’s energy problems, energy distribution problems. I want mechanical engineers to make better transportation systems. I want chemical engineers to develop better solar panels, and so on.” — Bill Nye, The Science Guy. As a scientist, engineer, inventor as well as a comic and author, Nye’s goal is to “help foster a scientifically literate society, to help people everywhere understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work.”

Nye’s quote and life’s work resonates as he reinforces in a light-hearted way the true gravitas behind the scientific community and the work they do.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. Meet The Disruptors: Jack Lifton Of One World Lithium On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your…

In China, they have industrial policies to ensure that they have enough scientists, electrical engineers, etc. Here in the United States, we graduate very few people who are majoring in electrical engineering. We do not have enough scientists and engineers needed for lithium processing in the United States. If I could inspire a movement, it would be to encourage young men and women who have aptitude in the sciences to consider studying electrical engineering, geological sciences, chemical sciences, etc. For our nation, to be energy independent and begin processing our natural resources, we need a true commitment from the next generation to join this journey.


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