Southwestern Arkansas could be the lithium production hotspot of America the way the Permian is now for oil, as mining companies and oil and gas supermajors are looking to tap more of the domestic U.S. lithium resources to reduce dependence on China.
Mining firms Standard Lithium and Tetra Technologies, as well as supermajor ExxonMobil, are looking to build lithium extraction capacities in Arkansas and source one of the most important metals for the energy transition via a process called direct lithium extraction (DLE).
The bromine-rich brines in the Smackover formation in southwestern Arkansas contain as much as 445 parts per million lithium, according to the Office of the State Geologist.
Standard Lithium says it has developed a fully integrated, start to finish, DLE process to selectively extract lithium from Smackover brine and produce battery-quality lithium compounds. Its chief executive Robert Mintak told The Wall Street Journal that the Smackover formation could be the Permian of U.S. lithium production, with better economics.
“The economics will be better, though,” Mintak told the Journal. “And the resource will last longer.”
And, Mintak notes, future demand for the product looks more favorable compared to oil.
Another company, TETRA Technologies, announced last month a Memorandum of Understanding with Saltwerx LLC to pool some of their respective brine mineral rights in the Smackover Formation, in support of an application for an approximately 6,000 acre Brine Production Unit and potential bromine and lithium extraction from the brine produced from such Brine Unit. Related: UAE Says OPEC+ Cuts Are Enough To Support The Oil Market
Tetra’s CEO Brady Murphy told the Journal, “It’s going to be a pretty big boom in Southwest Arkansas.”
And then there is Exxon, which is preparing to expand into lithium, in Arkansas. The WSJ reported in May that Exxon had acquired the rights to a lithium deposit in Arkansas, for which it paid $100 million. According to the previous owner of the assets, they may contain up to 4 million tons of lithium carbonate equivalent, which the WSJ said was enough for 50 million EV batteries.
If Exxon, Standard Lithium, and Tetra move forward with plans to extract lithium in the Smackover formation, rural southwestern Arkansas could see an economic boom and become the capital of America’s battery metals mining. The town of Magnolia, Arkansas, could be the next Midland, Texas, for industrial activities.
Besides the economic benefits, a lithium production boom – if the companies get the technologies and economics right – would be a win for any U.S. Administration as domestic supply of one of the energy transition’s key metals would increase.
Demand for lithium is expected to surge as the energy transition progresses, while the West is looking to diversify supply chains away from China’s lithium processing.
Bank UBS expects China to end up controlling nearly one-third of global lithium supply by 2025. Mines controlled by Beijing, not only in China but also in Africa, will see their total lithium output jump more than threefold in just three years—from 194,000 tons in 2022 to 705,000 tons by 2025, UBS said in a note earlier this year.
This surge in supply would raise the Chinese share of global lithium supply to 32% in 2025, up from 24% in 2022, the bank said.
But direct lithium extraction could help America get a larger share of its lithium from homegrown deposits, including those in Arkansas.
“Direct lithium extraction (DLE) and direct lithium to product (DLP) can be the driving forces behind the industry’s ability to respond more swiftly to soaring demand,” McKinsey & Company said in a report last year.
“Although DLE and DLP technologies are still in their infancy and subject to volatility given the industry’s “hockey stick” demand growth and lead times, they offer significant promise of increasing supply, reducing the industry’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) footprint, and lowering costs, with already announced capacity contributing to around 10 percent of the 2030 lithium supply, as well as to other less advanced projects in the pipeline.”
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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