The lithium-ion battery has enabled the smartphone, other portable electronics, cordless power tools and electric car batteries. A critical metal in great demand, lithium is essential to transitioning to a clean economy.
Strategically, the United States has been at a disadvantage because, thus far, little lithium is being produced here. China has done a phenomenal job of locking up much of the world’s lithium supplies, said Standard Lithium CEO Robert Mintak. He heads the publicly traded company that is based in British Columbia and developing a lithium extraction facility in El Dorado.
“Most of the current production of lithium is from Australia and South America, and that is primarily shipped to Asia for processing into battery materials and then exported to the world,” Mintak told Arkansas Money & Politics. “A robust domestic supply of materials like lithium is critical for economic security. Massive investments are being made by the largest automakers as they prepare to retool and roll out new electric vehicle offerings.
“These investments, and the millions of jobs impacted by them, require security of raw material supply. The recent semiconductor shortage highlights the importance of diversifying and localizing supply chains.”
Mintak said Standard Lithium’s goal is to transform the lithium extraction picture by using a new, more efficient method that could be significant for the United States, Arkansas and El Dorado, a former oil boom town that recently has struggled due to the downturn in the oil economy.
“It is important to remember that the oil industry has provided tens of thousands of jobs and pumped billions of dollars into the Arkansas economy over the past 100 years,” Mintak said. “A successful lithium development will allow the region to participate in a meaningful way as the world transitions to a new energy economy. As we transition away from carbon-intensive energy sources toward renewable energy and electric vehicles, there will be winners and losers, successes and failures along the way. But the lithium-ion battery will be the technology platform that will power our future.”
Standard Lithium is using brine from the area’s bromine extraction industry as the source for lithium production. The company’s original direct lithium extraction (DLE) demonstration facility has been operating almost 24/7 for the past year at project partner LANXESS’ south bromine brine processing facility, just outside El Dorado.
“Standard’s industrial-scale demonstration plant is connected to the existing ‘tail’ brine disposal pipeline network, allowing us to extract lithium from the brine before it is reinjected to the source aquifer,” Mintak said. “Our demonstration plant is a first-of-its-kind-anywhere technology. A successful commercial development will make Arkansas a global showcase for sustainable lithium extraction.”
Standard is located in El Dorado because it sits atop one of the world’s largest brine reservoirs, the Smackover Formation. Thousands of wells have been drilled in the Smackover Formation over the past century. Mintak said south Arkansas also has everything else needed to build a fully integrated lithium business, especially a globally significant lithium resource, extensive infrastructure, a highly skilled workforce and a supportive political climate.
The company’s DLE technology selectively pulls lithium from brine while leaving problematic elements, like calcium, magnesium and others, behind, Mintak said. The process, referred to as Lithium Stirred Tank Reactor (LiSTR), uses a stable/fine-grained solid ceramic adsorbent material with a crystal lattice that, under certain PH conditions, is capable of selectively pulling lithium ions from brine and releasing lithium for recovery.
“The ceramic adsorbent material is loaded with lithium in stirred tank reactors containing the brine,” Mintek said. “The Li-extraction process takes advantage of the fact that the brine is hot — not a hostile, hot brine like geo-thermal, but hot enough, approximately 150°F. This means that no additional energy is required, and the reaction kinetics for adsorption are ideal. In the second step, the loaded adsorbent releases the lithium ions for recovery.
“The process is fast, efficient, and it dramatically reduces the time and land required for lithium extraction from months, with evaporation pools, to hours. The LiSTR process has demonstrated that it can produce a high-purity lithium chloride [LiCl] solution that we can further processing into battery-quality lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide.”
Mintak said when compared to the conventional methods for recovering lithium from brine, the LiSTR process provides numerous benefits including a vastly reduced recovery time, significant efficiency gains (as high as a 90 percent recovery versus 40-60 percent with evaporation ponds), and improved purity of the final product.
Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said anything that makes the United States less dependent on China enhances the country’s economic standing.
“Standard Lithium has developed a remarkable process that has potential to be a breakthrough force for producing lithium used for lithium ion batteries,” Zook said. “It is one of those technological innovations that amaze us in the market economy where people are motivated to find better, cheaper, faster ways to do things. It has a good way to go to come to fruition, but all the signs are very positive. The project is good for El Dorado, good for Arkansas, good for the U.S. and good for the companies involved making the investments.”
The project covers about 180,000 acres in Union and Columbia counties. When commercial brine operations began in 1957, the brine was originally produced as a by-product of Smackover oil production. Mintak said commercial bromine operations today have their own high-productivity brine wells, processing more than 9 billion gallons annually. That same Smackover brine used by the bromine industry is also rich in lithium.
“Standard is utilizing new technology and innovation to unlock the resource,” he said. “Our Arkansas project can be a global showcase for sustainable development. Standard isn’t a mining company. We’re a technology company with a specialty in critical resource development. Our strategy from the beginning has been to consider alternatives to the conventional mining approach. Instead of looking in the rear-view mirror for answers, our focus was on the application of modern processing technologies that not only can produce a higher-purity final product faster but will also minimize the environmental impact.”
Standard Lithium’s facility in El Dorado is an industrial-scale demonstration plant — much larger than a typical pilot plant. Mintak said the purpose of operating a large demonstration-scale plant is to validate the technology, identify issues and optimize the process before designing the commercial production facility.
“Our hope is to have a final investment decision to begin commercial development before the end of the year,” Mintak said. “Currently, we have a local team of more than 20 who are operating the plant around the clock. If we are successful and move into commercial development, the project would be built in stages over several years and would generate over 100 direct and several hundred indirect jobs, plus construction and engineering work.”
The bromine industry has had a positive impact on south Arkansas, creating jobs and economic benefits for the past 60 years. Mintak believes lithium has the chance to do something similar for the next generation.