Shale gas wastewater could be a significant new source of lithium, a recent University of Houston study has determined. The study, done by researcher and assistant professor of petroleum engineering Kyung Jae Lee, sought to combine the disciplines of petroleum engineering and geochemistry to better understand the origin and transport of lithium in rock brines. It was recently published in Energy Reports.
“As lithium (Li)-ion batteries are the major energy storage used for both electric vehicles and renewable solar-and-wind electricity generation, the demand for Li has greatly escalated during the past decade and is predicted to increase continuously with the market growth of electric vehicles and renewable power generation,” the study introduction states. The demand for lithium is only expected to keep increasing, as countries and companies strive to tackle climate change. “To diversify and enhance the sources of global supply of critical minerals including Li, countries around the world are making various efforts to develop advanced technologies of their exploration and exploitation,” it continues. Lithium is most often mined, and most of the world’s supply is concentrated in several countries, including China and Russia. At the beginning of this year, lithium from China was priced at $40,000 per ton, compared to just $6,000 per ton before the COVID-19 pandemic, a University of Houston news release said. Lee’s research explored the potential of petroleum-based rock brines as a new source of lithium. Produced water, which is water that naturally flows from a horizontal well after it is fracked and during gas production, is laced with salt, various minerals, and sometimes radioactive particles. Lee looked at produced water in the Marcellus shale play and found that highly concentrated lithium was found in the water, providing a potential new substantial source. She is working with a Pennsylvania-based lithium processing company that purchases produced water from gas operators and extracts the mineral. “The U.S. has only one active brine mine to produce lithium so there’s a push to get critical minerals like lithium from unconventional or existing sources,” Lee said in the release. It may sound ironic, but the byproduct of oil and gas production could contribute to transitioning to clean energy sources. “Multifaceted efforts should be made for the clean energy transition to mitigate the impact of climate change,” she said. “We want to use our knowledge of petroleum engineering to contribute to the clean energy transition by providing creative new solutions such as the one that we are pursuing in our research – harnessing critical minerals from natural petroleum systems.”