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Wastewater from Pa. Shale Wells Could Be Major Lithium Source

Up to 40% of the lithium needed in the U.S. to support the rapidly increasing manufacture of batteries could be found in wastewater from Marcellus shale gas wells in Pennsylvania, a new report found.

The report from researchers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which was recently published in Scientific Reports, used data that unconventional well drillers are required to report to the state Department of Environmental Protection about the chemicals and substances, including lithium, in wastewater.

Large amounts of water are used in the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale layers in the Marcellus to release natural gas. Those geologic layers also contain naturally-occurring materials and elements. Water that returns to the surface after fracking carries some of those elements, including lithium.

Lithium is a major component of batteries used in electric vehicles, laptops and other electronic devices, and is considered a critical material by the U.S. Department of Energy. The government wants all lithium to be produced domestically by 2030. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also requires all raw materials used in EV batteries to come from domestic sources, which will further drive demand.

Currently much of the lithium is taken from brine ponds in Chile and shipped to China for processing. It is also mined in a number of countries, with Australia leading in production.

The report points out that large amounts of wastewater are being generated from Pennsylvania’s unconventional gas drilling industry with “limited options for beneficial reuse.” The brine is contaminated with salts, chemicals, and other substances and is most often reused in other wells until it reaches the level it must be disposed of by injecting it into deep underground caverns.

The study indicates there are differences in wastewater volumes and chemistry between the northeast and southwestern Pennsylvania Marcellus drilling areas, and also notes that wastewater production rate typically falls by 80% within the first two years, meaning that new wells must continue to be drilled to make up for older wells.

The study suggests that wastewater from the Marcellus has the potential to make a significant contribution to domestic supply needs, but also notes that further study needs to be done on the environmental, social, and cost considerations.

“Wastewater from oil and gas is a burgeoning issue,” lead researcher Justin Mackey, a NETL researcher and doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, told Pittwire. “Right now, it’s just minimally treated and reinjected.” But in the future, that waste product could produce real value.


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