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A New Source of Lithium

Companies are turning to seemingly unlikely sources for the lithium needed to make electric vehicles, according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription): oil-and-gas reservoirs.

What’s going on: “These oil-and-gas sites harbor not only hydrocarbons, but also brine that contains metals including sodium, calcium and some lithium. When drillers poke holes into oil-saturated formations, the brine flows back to the surface along with the molecules that end up as fuel, and companies have been prompt to discard the earthy marinade.”

  • “But now that the EV battery material has become a prized commodity, lithium companies are developing technologies to remove it from this brine—and oil-and-gas companies are also taking a second look.”
  • Lithium companies in the U.S. and Canada are working with oil-and-gas firms to get the metal out of old oil fields and produce it from wastewater pumps.

Skyrocketing demand: U.S. demand for lithium is expected to increase to nearly six times its current size by 2030, to $52 billion, according to Boston Consulting Group.

Why it’s important: Most lithium today comes from China, Chile and Australia, with the three countries providing around 92% of the lithium extracted globally last year. But in the U.S., the process would be more environmentally friendly.

  • “Because energy companies have drilled millions of oil-and-gas wells and collected subsurface data in the process, lithium prospectors know where to look.”

A faster process: The direct extraction method could significantly speed lithium production. In it, “brine is sent to a processing unit, where chemicals, a resin or a membrane, among other technologies, are used to capture the lithium ions. The water is then reinjected into the aquifer where it originated. The process takes at most a few days, and recoveries are up to 90%.”

  • Some are hoping direct extraction will allow lithium producers to get the metal in the Permian basin of West Texas and New Mexico.
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