Experts say that they may have found a potential solution to the lithium supply issues currently affecting the electric vehicle (EV) and battery production industries – and it may come from a most surprising source.
The same shale reservoirs that are being used to produce oil and gas can be used to produce lithium, essentially serving as an alternative to more conventional mining methods which are seen as detrimental to the environment.
An Innovation Out of Houston
This breakthrough is the work of assistant professor Kyung Jae Lee at the Cullen College of Engineering at the University of Houston.
In a report published in the trade journal Energy Reports, Lee noted that brines released by petroleum-producing rocks during processing were rich in highly-concentrated lithium.
According to Lee, the discovery of lithium in what is essentially a byproduct of oil and gas production serves as a game-changer for the renewable fuels sector. It’s a development that offers an entirely new solution to the global lithium shortfall which was driven up by the surging demand for electric vehicles and more sustainable energy storage solutions.
Lee noted that there’s currently just one active brine mine in the United States. That said, she opines that there will be a scramble to source lithium from current sources, as well as unconventional ones. In this case, her research of the Marcellus shale play in Pennsylvania is seen as a timely development.
Lee’s research is also meant to address issues related to climate change. She believes that her knowledge of petroleum engineering is instrumental in the ongoing shift towards clean energy, particularly when it comes to the creation of new methods to make this most important transition.
An Artificially-Induced Shortage
Technically, there shouldn’t even be a lithium shortage as the raw mineral is one of the most plentiful in the world. However, the demand for lithium processed for industrial use has surged exponentially throughout the past decade, so processed lithium is currently in a dwindling supply.
The unresolved bottlenecks affecting the global supply chain are one primary reason for the shortfall. The surging demand for lithium for the production of lithium-ion (LiOn) batteries used to power EVs is another, and so is the ongoing unrest in various parts of the world.
In the first quarter of this year, the price of lithium sourced from China was worth $40,000 per ton – substantially higher than the $6,000 seen in Q1-2020. The price is higher in spot markets, with lithium selling at $70,000 per ton.