Energy Magazine October 2019

Lithium Ground Zero

Lithium

In South Arkansas, Firm Looks to Lead Next Energy Revolution

by Ryan Nix

Lithium stands to become a keystone in the next energy revolution, serving as a vital component for rechargeable batteries found in portable electronics like cell phones, laptops and power tools. 

Canadian firm Standard Lithium stands to completely change the game of lithium extraction, and it’s starting in south Arkansas.

Lithium-ion batteries also are found in electric and hybrid vehicles, and are considered the next step in transportation. But lithium production has been a long, costly process, wherein companies would pump underground brine deposits rich with lithium into man-made ponds, which then sat for months while water evaporated, leaving behind the lithium-enriched salts. 

Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Standard Lithium has developed a new, proprietary process that uses a solid ceramic material with a crystal lattice that can extract lithium ions from underground brine which has already been processed to extract other valuable chemicals like bromine. South Arkansas has cornered the market on bromine production in the United States, with the Smackover geological formation serving as the source of all U.S. bromine since 2007. 

The Arkansas project pilot plant near Ruston, La.

The Smackover formation consists of organic fossil deposits and concentrated salt-water brine trapped in the porous limestone aquifers. These aquifers have hosted huge volumes of mineral-rich brines and hydrocarbons deposited millions of years ago during the Jurassic period, when scientists say most of the southern United States was submerged under what is now the Gulf of Mexico. 

Arkansans have been drilling for oil, bromine and other valuable chemicals and minerals in the Smackover area since 1922, using wells to pump the ancient brine from underground. Currently, the brine pulled from the aquifer is sent through pipelines to processing plants which extricate desired materials, including bromine. After processing, the waste — or tail brine — is re-injected back into its mother-aquifer.

Standard Lithium’s new process takes that processed brine and uses it to further extract valuable lithium ions in a novel and efficient way. Tail brine that has gone through the bromine extraction process leaves the brine heated to roughly 160° Fahrenheit, a suitable temperature to begin extracting lithium from the salt water. Since the brine was already hot from the bromine processing, Standard Lithium’s new procedures are both energy-efficient and cost-effective. 

“We piggyback off of existing infrastructure to pull lithium ions directly out of tail brine. This has a much smaller environmental footprint, allows us to recover far more lithium with increased purity, and it only takes a few hours.” — Robert Mintak

Additionally, the new process extracts lithium at unheard-of speeds. Standard Lithium CEO Robert Mintak says extracting lithium from tail brines is more environmentally friendly than using an evaporation pond.

“Most lithium mining has so far taken place in dry, fragile ecosystems where water is precious and critical. The ponds they’d make would take up a huge amount of space, and the chemicals they’d put in had the potential to harm wildlife and the water supply,” he says. “Those ponds would then take six to 18 months to evaporate, and even then you’d only recover 50 percent of the brine’s lithium content.”

Mintak says the company’s new process is based on direct extraction. 

“We piggyback off of existing infrastructure to pull lithium ions directly out of tail brine,” he says. “This has a much smaller environmental footprint, allows us to recover far more lithium with increased purity, and it only takes a few hours.”

Mintak extolls lithium’s importance to large-capacity batteries as a driving force behind the 21st century economy, considering it the “oil of the 21st century.” If true, Standard’s development in El Dorado could potentially make south Arkansas a hub of the next energy revolution, bringing jobs and breathing new life into the area. 

The LANXESS western plant near El Dorado.

“It’s too early to make promises,” says Mintak. “But once we show the industry what our demonstration plant is capable of, I can see future commercial plants creating over 100 direct jobs per plant, and that’s not counting ancillary work around the area.”

For its entry into Arkansas, Standard partnered with LANXESS, a global specialty chemical corporation with extensive operations in south Arkansas. Standard is in the process of building a demonstration plant at LANXESS’ South Bromine Processing Center to serve as a proof of concept, showing that Standard’s new methods of lithium extraction are commercially viable.  

While south Arkansas may not be traditionally considered a hotbed of industrial activity, it’s a safe bet for Standard’s new development. Because of its long history in the oil and chemical business, the area is friendly to new companies, its resources are well-documented and the local workforce is already highly-skilled in drilling and processing. Additionally, LANXESS has already built and provides maintenance for necessary infrastructure like brine wells, pipelines and processing plants, upon which Standard can build on to perform their lithium extraction techniques.

Construction of Standard’s demonstration plant is underway. The phase 1 and 2 modules currently are being installed at LANXESS’ South Plant facility and its project team is hard at work connecting the modules, installing the site offices and control room and making utility connections. The plant should be up and running later this fall. 

“We’re incredibly impressed with our ability to work in Arkansas. It’s the most business-friendly jurisdiction,” says Mintak. “The project is moving faster than even our most optimistic timelines, and we’re just extremely happy to be working here.” 

brine trench and storage towers at Standard Lithium’s Bristol Dry Lake lithium brine project in Jojave Desert, California.