Oilfield chemistry

It Is Easy To Find Lithium; Turning a Profit Is Hard

The best wells in which to find lithium are in old conventional fields where rusty pump jacks are pulling out mostly water.

Water samples recently collected in East Texas.
Water samples recently collected in East Texas.
Source: Bureau of Economic Geology

Finding lithium in the water from oil and gas wells is easy. Finding enough to make money is hard.

In the US and Canada there has been growing interest in directly extracting lithium from the water coming out of the oil/water separator, which is competing with more established techniques such as mining and evaporating lithium-rich fluids.

The race to find lithium is driven by expectations that fast-rising electric car sales will make the lithium required for batteries in those vehicles a valuable commodity. Those chasing direct extraction are also betting that their innovations can do what they say.

Direct extraction from water started looking like a real possibility earlier this year when ExxonMobil paid $100 million to buy a company holding 120,000 gross acres of leases in south Arkansas.

The price reflected the location in the heart of the direct lithium extraction industry of the future. The area offers a unique combination of lithium-rich water plus the infrastructure and expertise needed to transport, process, and dispose of the billions of gallons of water needed for industrial-scale mineral extraction.

Commercial production of battery-quality lithium carbonate in Arkansas is years off.

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