Element3, a Fort Worth, Texas-based critical material extraction company, said it has successfully extracted lithium chloride from oil and gas wastewater in the Permian Basin.

The accomplishment, which involved utilization of a patent-pending direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology, paves a path toward unlocking a U.S. source of lithium using the billions of gallons of wastewater generated by the oil and gas industry. The field test was conducted with wastewater from a Double Eagle Energy Holdings subsidiary’s produced water recycling facility.

“We’ve developed technology that works with these heterogeneous fluids that have much lower concentrations,” Element3 CEO Hood Whitson told Hart Energy. “We don’t have to pre-concentrate, which is a differentiator compared to many others in the marketplace in traditional DLE. We can tackle these brines as they are.”

Demand for lithium, a key ingredient in batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) and for energy storage, is forecast to continue rising as the world seeks cleaner energy sources. Energy experts expect lithium will play a prominent role in reducing emissions, including in the U.S. where a mission is underway to boost domestic supplies and reduce its dependence on foreign countries. The U.S. imported more than 75% of its lithium from Argentina and Chile between 2017 and 2020, according to information from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Unlike lithium mined from rock in open pits, DLE is seen as a more environmentally friendly way of extracting lithium. The process involves pulling lithium directly from water using a variety of technologies that could include adsorption, resin or a membrane.

‘No small feat’

Element3’s method targets lithium in oil and gas wastewater, finding value in the byproduct.

Though Element3 was tightlipped about its patent-pending, novel technologies used, Whitson said the company has licensed some intellectual property from National Laboratories and has developed a novel lithium sensor with Texas A&M University that senses the amount of lithium in water in real-time.

The company’s model is based on high volumes and low concentrations, aiming to take advantage of brines that have already been produced instead of exploring for new ones.

“There’s 20 million barrels of water a day produced in the Permian, and it’s all, for the most part, sub 40 ppm [parts per million],” Whitson said. “If you look at Exxon or you look at Standard Lithium, they’re going after these Smackover brines, they're 300 or 400 ppm. So, it’s a wide difference and a different challenge to be able to handle a wastewater brine versus one that you’re directly exploring and producing.”

Most brines in the Permian have lithium concentrations between 15 ppm and 40 ppm, according to Whitson. Salinities typically range between 100,000 ppm to 180,000 ppm, much saltier than seawater.

For the field test, Element3 set up a simple flow loop, moving water from Double Eagle’s water recycling facility to Element3’s plant. Working with 500 bbl/d of nameplate capacity in an active development with changing total dissolved solids, water flowed through Element3’s proprietary plant and back into the water system. Metals extracted during the process were stored as brines in tanks on-site.

“Being able to selectively extract lithium or any other material out of a complicated brine like that is no small feat,” he added.

Test results show the company was able to recover more than 85% of the lithium contained in wastewater with a concentration of less than 40 ppm. Independent third-party testing confirmed the lithium chloride produced meets concentration and purity requirements needed to create battery-grade lithium carbonate, the company said in a news release.

“E&Ps are actively developing and growing their developments, so being able to operate in a true operating environment is a great milestone,” Whitson said. “We think we’re some of the first to produce lithium chloride. … It’s been a great test, and we look forward to doing more of that later in the year and scaling as a next step.”

Element3 said it plans to conduct a larger demonstration before moving to commercial production later this year.

Andrew Lackner, managing director of Energy Innovation Capital (EIC), called the results a “landmark moment for the energy industry.” EIC Rose Rock is among Element3’s major investors.

“This development is pivotal to enable America to establish its own stable, domestic lithium supply chain, reducing reliance on foreign countries for critical minerals needed for EV batteries and electronics,” Lackner said in a statement.

Tapping the untapped

A study published in 2021 by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) found that one week’s worth of water from hydraulic fracturing operations in the Eagle Ford Shale could produce enough lithium for 300 EV batteries or 1.7 million smartphones.

Researchers used a novel polymer membrane created with crown ethers, a type of ligand that binds to certain ions. The crown ethers can target lithium molecules.

“In most polymers, sodium travels through membranes faster than lithium. However, in these new materials, lithium travels faster than sodium, which is a common contaminant in lithium-containing brines,” UT explained in a news release. “Through computer modeling, the team discovered why this was happening. Sodium ions bind with the crown ethers, slowing them down, while lithium ions remain unbound, enabling them to move more quickly through the polymer.”

Element3 is among a small group of companies making headway in the space.

In the Marcellus Shale, Eureka Resources has been receiving wastewater from natural gas companies, extracting minerals from it and generating clean water, Eureka Resources Chief Commercial Officer and CFO Chris Frantz told Hart Energy in 2023.

While the DLE approach plucks out lithium and leaves everything else, Eureka takes the opposite approach and uses methods similar to those it has carried out for years to remove metals from wastewater, Frantz explained. The most prevalent salt is removed, followed by the next and the next until lithium is the end product.

Though techniques vary, the abundance of oil and gas wastewater means opportunity.

Enverus has explored the possibilities. In 2022, Enverus Intelligence Research said E&P companies in the Delaware Basin could generate an estimated $19 billion in additional revenue by using DLE to produce about 225,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year from wastewater.

A 2023 report by the firm focused on Canada’s white gold rush.

“Instead of building entirely new infrastructure, operators with condensed positions, infrastructure in place and high volumes of water production could pose an opportunity for wastewater processing and lithium extraction at the same time,” the report states. “This will reduce project capital and operating costs, allowing for the economic extraction of lithium from brines at a lower concentration.”

Enverus’ analysis showed Alberta’s top 10 companies produced a collective 74 MMbbl of water monthly. Assuming an LCE spot price of $55,000 per tonne, that’s a “wasted opportunity of 17,000 tonnes/year of LCE and nearly $1 billion in revenue,” according to the report.

Lithium concentrations vary by region. While lithium concentration the Permian ranges from 20 ppm to 40 ppm, tests have shown lithium concentrations as high as 850 ppm in the Arkansas Smackover, according to Graham Bain, the subsurface group lead for Enverus’ Energy Transition Intelligence team.

Oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil Corp. in 2023 joined lithium players, including Standard Lithium and Albemarle, in the Smackover where DLE technology is being put to use.

Lithium concentrations in the Smackover average about 250 ppm, while Alberta’s averages about 60 ppm from the Devonian carbonates with tests as high as 140 ppm, he added.

“The one advantage the Permian has is that there is already a massive amount of produced water and infrastructure in place,” Bain said.

Looking at supply and demand internationally and domestically, Whitson said there is more demand for lithium than supply for the next 15 years.

“Even if all of the projects that are on the docket get built, we’re still likely hundreds of thousands of tons short for domestic supply of lithium in the U.S.,” he added. “So, we certainly think that, even as a small producer, we can make a pretty big difference in securing the supply chain and providing domestic materials here in the U.S.”