Lithium is the foundation of the world’s technological future, powering everything from laptops to mobile phones to the electric vehicles that promise to flood streets in the years to come. Yet as the world insists on cleaner cars, more energy storage options to further the renewable energy revolution and more consumer electronics, lithium’s ability to supply enough of the precious metal to meet demand is being questioned.

Goldman Sachs Group projects demand for lithium to triple by 2025 to 570,000 tons, driven principally by smartphone and electric car applications. As the earth’s lightest solid element and with double the energy density of the next closest alternative, lithium is ideal for such portable energy storage applications. In fact, Goldman Sachs calls lithium “the new gasoline” for its integral role in the lithium-ion batteries used in today’s electric vehicles.

Recognizing the tension between the world’s supply and demand of lithium, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated, “To produce half a million cars a year … we would basically need to absorb the entire world’s lithium-ion production.” In fact, Tesla’s new Gigafactory in Nevada is projected to use up as much as 17% of the world’s existing lithium supply. What’s more, Credit Suisse forecasts that demand for lithium “will actually outstrip supply as we approach the latter part of the decade, with demand potentially as high as 125% of total capacity.”

Lithium-ion batteries power everything from cellphones to electric cars, which is leading to lithium shortages. (Source: Kiri 11, Shutterstock.com)

Procuring lithium

So if lithium is one of the earth’s most abundant elements, how are we running low on supply? To date, there are only two conventional ways of procuring lithium— solar evaporation and hard-rock mining—and neither is particularly effective.

Solar evaporation is an inefficient and time-intensive process that requires at least 18 months to produce viable lithium carbonate. Despite this long timeline, solar evaporation averages low mineral recovery rates of less than 50%. Additionally, the technology requires hundreds of acres of land for evaporation ponds, resulting in a significant negative environmental footprint.

Hard-rock mining is also a time-intensive process that disturbs the land surface and detrimentally impacts groundwater, surface water, aquatic and terrestrial vegetation, wildlife, soils, air, and cultural resources.

Given these two lackluster approaches, it’s evident that traditional means of supply need to be diversified to invent unconventional ways of procuring lithium.

MGX Minerals is pioneering a new concept called “petrolithium.” The idea is to separate the most valuable minerals and salts from the brine water that accompanies petroleum as it’s being pulled up to the surface. Among those valuable minerals in the brine water is lithium carbonate.

Long known to contain valuable minerals, petroleum brine is plentiful yet is currently treated as a byproduct that is either reinjected into the ground or stored in giant tanks after the oil is separated at the wellhead. These traditional disposal methods can cause major environmental issues such as the contamination of drinking water and earthquakes.

Extracting lithium from petroleum brine is exponentially faster and more environmentally friendly than solar evaporation. It’s also a less expensive way of harvesting lithium than conventional hard-rock mining.

This recovery process was specifically designed for the highly mineralized brine associated with oilfield lithium brine and promises to reduce lithium brine evaporation times to less than one day. This represents a decrease of more than 99% over traditional solar evaporation techniques, which traditionally take up to 18 months.

The process is designed to operate in oil and gas fields by integration with existing environmental and disposal systems, whether they are standalone or centralized environmental facilities. What’s more, the technology leaves room for the development of a scalable modular solution to lithium and other mineral extraction equipment.

MGX Minerals is working with PurLucid Treatment Solutions, an advanced water purification company, to integrate their respective technologies and purify the wastewater that results from the surfacing of petroleum brine. Together, the technologies will pretreat the brine to remove oil, colloid and metals through nano-flotation and filtration technologies. The patented technology separates oil to a high degree of purity from lithium-bearing brine, removing one of the major hurdles of oilfield lithium brine production.

Heavy oil evaporator blowdown wastewater is one of the byproducts of steam-assisted gravity drainage during production of heavy oil. Evaporator blowdown wastewater was specifically targeted because the wastewater contains mid-level concentrations of lithium and has the potential to generate high-environmental revenue based on current disposal costs. MGX and PurLucid Treatment Solutions are developing a pilot plant suitable for commercial use that will treat evaporator blowdown wastewater to provide oil sand producers with additional environmentally friendly disposal options as well as recover valuable minerals such as lithium.

Up until now the presence of hydrocarbons in lithium brine presented a potentially significant long-term hurdle to efficient large-scale production of lithium from oilfield brine. PurLucid’s technology was designed for the environmental services industry to separate impurities from oil industry waste streams, producing clean water as a final product.

The company partnered with David Bromley Engineering by licensing and applying patented nano-flotation technology to wastewater treatment. The novel approach uses a removable membrane coating to capture particles. The technology provides the ability to operate at one-third less cost on a continuous basis with little to no downtime and is projected to require half the capex and reduce the carbon emissions of water treatment by 90% when compared to conventional environmental technology in thermal facilities.

All of this results in a clean, consistent flow of feedstock for processing with wastewater that can be safely recycled or returned to the environment in a controlled manner.

This process will remove heavy metals and hydrocarbons, providing a continuous stream of partially concentrated lithium brine that’s very low in impurities and has a higher overall grade of lithium for processing with MGX’s rapid lithium production process. PurLucid, working with MGX and its proprietary process design for lithium extraction, will engineer, fabricate and deploy combined treatment and lithium recovery plants.

The world has gone electric and has dramatically increased its reliance on lithium. Continuing to rely solely on conventional extraction methods will see demand outpace supply. Not only will the concept of petrolithium provide oil providers with an environmentally responsible way to dispose of their produced oilfield water, it will create a new supply source for largescale lithium consumers like electric vehicle manufacturers and makers of consumer electronics.