12 February 2023 |

Multipurpose metal recovery


We’ve written plenty about the momentum in minerals and metals right now, especially as it pertains to climate technologies. As EV sales ramp, so too will pressure on lithium and other metals that are vital inputs for batteries. The same is true for the push to develop more utility-scale battery energy storage, which will accelerate key input demand significantly in coming years as well. 

Against this backdrop, investments in domestic battery material supply chains have been fast and furious over the past year, especially in the U.S. post IRA, which featured a $35 per kilowatt hour tax credit for domestically produced battery cells (enough to cover ~20-30% of a battery’s cost). 

Another impetus for all this attention is the concentration of metal supply chains; a few countries dominate the production and processing of metals like copper and lithium (see China, Chile, Australia, and Argentina). Plus, as investments in developing climate tech become more protectionist, there’s reason to fear significantly more constrained access to metals in the future.

However, there are other ways to shore up the supply of critical minerals. And some techniques and novel approaches might offer other added climate benefits. This week, Olokun Minerals raised a $1.1M pre-seed round for its critical mineral recovery technology. 

In contrast to where most metals and minerals come from, Olokun isn’t focused on ‘less-bad’ extraction. Instead, they aim to source valuable products from waste streams that otherwise pollute the environment. 

While their trade secrets are still largely under lock and key, Olokun’s CEO, Lacey Reddix previously shared with me that their technology leverages chromatography, a technique that can separate a mixture into its various components. Ideally, this means processing multiple compounds – whether valuable products or dangerous pollutants – from waste streams simultaneously, which is rare among processing technologies. Their tech also omits hydrochloric acid, making the process cleaner and cheaper.

Desalination to diamonds (figuratively speaking)

The first market Olokun is targeting on is desalination. When you desalinate water, you’re left with new H2O in one hand and briny, salty sludge in the other. Beyond high energy costs, that’s one reason new proposals for desalination plants often face opposition.

On the plus side, these waste streams can also be rich in metal and mineral content, whether magnesium, lithium chloride, sodium, or other. Olokun sees an opportunity to harvest these metals while remediating the waste from desalination, making plant operators’ life easier and easing concerns for local stakeholders.

While new desalination plants on the West Coast have (as noted above) faced staunch opposition from local environmental groups and other stakeholders, it’s hard to imagine the desal market stalling out forever, especially as water stress becomes more acute in the U.S. and across the world. Desalination also isn’t only for the coast; there are ‘brown water’ and brackish desalination projects further inland that are increasingly common, too. 

Further, there are many other waste streams from other industries Olokun could target down the line where metal and mineral recovery paired with water remediation is relevant. Geothermal, steel and aluminum manufacturing, and even oil and gas operations come to mind.

The net-net

Another reason this is my favorite deal of the week stems from my interview with Lacey months ago, where we discussed Olokun and her journey as a founder. At the time, she was still in the beginning stages of raising a venture round. Beyond the potential impact of the tech and the business model, the top thing I took out of that conversation was that Lacey and team are keenly focused on building a solution that’s a) multi-solve and b) equitable

Lacey has firsthand experience dealing with inequities in areas like water access, which shines through in Olokun’s mission. Ensuring that local communities don’t have to bear the negative externalities of solutions like desalination is critical, as is setting an example for other businesses to consider how they can craft circular solutions that benefit all stakeholders.

Finally, I’m heartened to see this pre-seed deal get done in a not-so-easy funding environment. There are many climate problems, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to pollution to water access. Companies that make a concerted push on multiple fronts will always have a home in these pages.