After securing $23 million in fresh capital through a Series A raising last month, Sydney-based Novalith Technologies is on track to build a pilot project by the end of this year as it progresses plans to make the global EV revolution even greener.
Novalith Technologies, a company co-founded by chemical engineer and serial entrepreneur Steven Vassiloudis, is on a mission to clean up the lithium mining industry and potentially make it carbon negative.
The company has developed a novel process that makes hard-rock lithium extraction and refining significantly cheaper, environmentally cleaner and more scalable than conventional methods. The by-products from lithium extraction are also safe enough to be used to remediate the mine.
Lithium miners are already taking notice, with Vassiloudis revealing that Novalith has fielded plenty of interest from major miners in Western Australia and globally. Some are even looking to apply Novalith’s technology to resources other than lithium as the resources industry looks for ways of extracting ore without creating waste products such as sodium sulphate.
“Effectively, we’re using a ‘soda stream’ at special conditions to extract a very valuable metal,” Vassiloudis tells Business News Australia. “It’s much cheaper than conventional methods.”
Novalith uses carbonated water rather than sulfuric acid to extract lithium directly from mined rocks to deliver battery-grade lithium carbonate and a by-product of inert, carbon-dioxide-infused rock.
The process is said to cut costs of processing the igneous rocks that contain lithium by up to 65 per cent, while using 90 per cent less water. Novalith says that when paired with renewable energy sources, the technology opens a path to carbon-negative lithium production.
“We get the same lithium recoveries, in the same time, from ore that has less than half as much lithium and a whole bunch of other nasty things,” Vassiloudis says.
While the Novalith process makes high-grade lithium extraction cheaper, the company says it also makes lower-grade deposits found in clays economically viable at a time when lithium demand is increasing.
However, Vassiloudis says a key benefit of the process is that the processed rock is safe enough to return to the mine to be used for remediation works.
“Mines are a massive scar on the land and, with our process, we can basically take the leftover rock with the lithium extracted and do whatever you like with it because it’s not environmentally harmful.
“It’s been carbonated so it’s a safe, benign material that can be used to remediate the mines.”
Prior to establishing Novalith, Vassiloudis led Kemplant, a company he founded that is focused on commercialising novel technologies, largely in the environmental space.
“We’re basically looking to find clean and green solutions to solve some of the issues facing the chemical industry globally,” Vassiloudis says.
While he remains a director of Kemplant, he devotes less of his time to the business as he scales up Novalith Technologies.
The Novalith technology was among the many innovative ideas that came across Vassiloudis' desk at Kemplant, with the IP acquired from the University of Sydney where it was invented by Dr Brian Haynes a decade ago.
Vassiloudis joined Dr Andrew Harris and Christiaan Jordaan as co-founders of Novalith Technologies in 2019, supported by a seed round in 2021 that raised $2.5 million.
“The seed round helped us validate everything that had been done previously by the university as well as expand on the science,” Vassiloudis says.
The economics of lithium extraction are determined by the materials in which it is embedded – from continental brines to hard rocks and soft rocks such as clays which generally have very little lithium and are expensive to process. Western Australia’s lithium reserves are largely found in the hard rocks known as spodumene.
“That’s the go-to rock for lithium at the moment because it’s very high quality and very well understood,” Vassiloudis says.
“Our technology has been proven on high quality spodumene, so we tested it on a lot of other (situations) and got some positive results.”
These results were the foundation for the Series A which raised $23 million last month. Novalith is likely to seek at least three times as much once it prepares to build a commercial demonstration plant.
“A 20 kilotonne per annum production plant requires $300 million to $400 million and if we are doing 1 kilotonne per annum we will be looking $40 million to $60 million to build that plant,” Vassiloudis says. “We will definitely need capital and a commercial partner.”
In the meantime, the Series A funding will set Novalith Technologies up to pilot at Alexandria near the company’s Sydney headquarters and develop a pre-commercial demonstration of the technology. It has also helped the company grow its staff from 10 before Christmas to 28 today.
“We should have the pilot up and running by the end of this year,” Vassiloudis says.
“Following on from that we’ll be looking at a commercial demonstration plant either in Western Australia, Europe or wherever that may be.
“We expect to have a commercial demonstration site built within the next two years – then we’ll roll out the technology en masse.”
Novalith is planning to offer lithium miners a scale-up lithium processing system that it believes will add to its market advantage.
“Whereas conventional systems require huge capital investment and an extended lead-up time to get off the ground, Novalith is going for a modular design that will allow lithium miners to scale up as needed,” Vassiloudis says.
“By going modular, you can scale up as quickly as you like. Instead of investing $1 billion on mega-plants, we’re going the other way.
“We have a standard module 5 kilotonnes per annum, although that number is to be confirmed. We build them, drop them and we plug them in and you start making lithium chemical. You can start producing revenue while scaling up.”
The latest Series A capital raising was led by Lowercarbon Capital, with participation from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Grantham Environmental Trusts' Neglected Climate Opportunities Fund, TDK Ventures and Investible.
Vassiloudis says the support from major investors has been invaluable to progressing Novalith’s technology to commercialisation.
He notes that the investors understand the challenges, with the likes of TDK Ventures ‘very knowledgeable’ in the climate space. But he also notes that they have faith in the Novalith team to meet its targets.
“Deep tech and new tech are hard,” he says. “Our investors have been great but they have also been letting us do our thing.”
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