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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Is This The Answer To The Lithium Shortage?

University of Texas at Austin and Monash University researchers have recently discovered a new, efficient way to extract lithium and other metals and minerals from water.

With continual technological advancements in mobile devices and electric cars, the global demand for lithium has quickly outpaced the rate at which it can be mined or recycled. The proposed technology may be able to recover enough lithium to power 200 electric cars or 1.6 million smartphones each week from some Texas gas wells.

The working group published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

The team’s technique uses a metal-organic-framework membrane that mimics the filtering function, or “ion selectivity,” of biological cell membranes. The membrane process easily and efficiently separates metal ions, opening the door to revolutionary technologies in the water and mining industries and potential economic growth opportunities in Texas.

Related: Oil Rig Count Rises As Prices Recover

The team’s process could also help with water desalination. Unlike the existing reverse-osmosis membranes responsible for more than half of the world’s current water desalination capacity, the new membrane process dehydrates ions as they pass through the membrane channels and removes only select ions, rather than indiscriminately removing all ions. The result is a process that costs less and consumes less energy than conventional methods.

The team’s material operates on principles inspired by highly effective biological cell membranes, whose mechanism of operation was discovered by Roderick MacKinnon and Peter Agre and was the subject of the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The natural gas producing Barnett and Eagle Ford shale formations in Texas contain high amounts lithium, and the produced wastewater generated by hydraulic fracturing in those areas has high concentrations of lithium. Instead of discarding the produced water, the team’s membrane filter could extract the resulting lithium and put it to use in other industries.

Each well in the Barnett and Eagle Ford can generate up to 300,000 gallons of produced water per week. Using their new process, Freeman and his team conservatively estimate that from just one week’s worth of produced water, enough lithium can be recovered to power 200 electric cars or 1.6 million smartphones.

Freeman said, “Produced water from shale gas fields in Texas is rich in lithium. Advanced separation materials concepts such as ours could potentially turn this waste stream into a resource recovery opportunity.”

Anita Hill chief scientist at Monash University Department of Chemical Engineering and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia said, “The prospect of using metal-organic frameworks for sustainable water filtration is incredibly exciting from a public-good perspective, while delivering a better way of extracting lithium ions to meet global demand [that] could create new industries.”

Related: Tesla’s Powerpack: Real Hope Or Mostly Hype?

Of interest is the funding for this research was provided by the Australian Research Council, the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and the National Computational Infrastructure in Australia.

Of course, this technology is in its infancy, but its working at lab scale which is a good start. Right now, lithium is worth enough to cause great interest in recovery techniques that could simplify the refining of lithium as well as expose new reserves that are so deep as to defy economical mining.

Not only is this research a new path to recover lithium, it offers a way to clean up water. It also is likely a step into a new field that may show more materials to recover other products from deep in the earth and offer new ways to clean and recycle water.

This is very much – A Grand Discovery. Pretty soon drillers of most all wells for oil and gas might want to get quickly assayed!

By New Energy And Fuel

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  • Lee James on February 19 2018 said:
    Cleaning up frac water is one of the things that we must get done. It's similar to our need to greatly reduce methane leakage from the wellhead all the way to natural gas end-users.

    The question comes in the cost of clean up. In the little picture, the economics are not all that good for some forms of environmental remediation. In the long term, there's no question that we need to maintain clean water and atmosphere. Hopefully, recovering otherwise wasted gas and lithium will help defray considerable production and transport cost.

    Fortunately, the will of the American people is now once again swinging toward conservative and healthful use of our natural resources. The challenge that we must overcome is our natural tendency to maximize short-term profits and to concentrate those profits in a very small number of hands.

    We really need to ask, what is the prudent thing to do, all things considered -- including grand kids.

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