Massive Lithium Find Made in Pennsylvania

Researchers say fracking wastewater could provide 40% of US supply of critical mineral
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted May 30, 2024 1:48 PM CDT
Massive Lithium Find Made in Pennsylvania
A lithium mining operation in Chile.   (Getty Images/Daniel Grinspun)

Researchers in Pennsylvania say they didn't have to dig to find a huge source of a critical mineral. In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, the University of Pittsburgh researchers say wastewater from fracking in the state could provide up to 40% of the national demand for lithium, a key element in rechargeable batteries. Much of America's lithium currently comes from countries including China and Chile, but the government is seeking to make the supply 100% domestic by 2030, CBS Pittsburgh reports.

  • A beneficial use of waste: "This is a waste stream, and we're looking at a beneficial use of that waste," says lead researcher Justin Mackey, a National Energy Technology Laboratory scientist. He says researchers knew that wastewater from Marcellus Shale gas wells picked up some minerals from the shale, but until now, they "just didn't know how much was in there," the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. He says the wastewater "has as high lithium concentrations as both brine mining operations in Arkansas and in Chile."

  • The water has been doing the mining: "Wastewater from oil and gas is a burgeoning issue," Mackey says. "Right now, it's just minimally treated and reinjected. But it has the potential to provide a lot of value. It's been dissolving rocks for hundreds of millions of years—essentially, the water has been mining the subsurface."
  • Why lithium is essential: The researchers noted that lithium is "considered essential to the US economy due to domestic consumption in energy, manufacturing, and defense," per the Hill. They said because of decarbonization efforts, demand for the element is rising.
  • Extraction: Mackey says lithium can efficiently be extracted from wastewater. "The attractive nature of this type of resource, it being water, is that you can start to apply some newer technologies like direct lithium extraction methods, where you're just focusing on the lithium and keeping everything else in solution," he says.
  • Other states: The shale formation extends into Ohio and West Virginia, but the study didn't analyze wastewater from those states. "That number could be a lot larger, so there's an economic boom for the region as well," Mackey says.
(More lithium stories.)

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