Pennsylvania wastewater: A surprising source of lithium for batteries

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Most of the lithium used in everyday technology like smartwatches and electric cars travels a long way before it reaches manufacturers.

However, a surprising new source of lithium could cut down on this extensive travel: Pennsylvania’s wastewater.

Researchers have found that wastewater from the Marcellus shale gas wells in Pennsylvania contains significant amounts of lithium.

In fact, if this lithium could be fully extracted, it could potentially meet up to 40% of the United States’ lithium needs.

This finding comes from a study analyzing data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Justin Mackey and Daniel Bain, researchers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory and the University of Pittsburgh respectively, have developed a method to extract lithium from water with over 90% efficiency.

This breakthrough could be a game changer in how we source lithium, shifting from global supply chains to more local sources.

Lithium is a critical element for the U.S., which aims to produce all its lithium domestically by 2030 to avoid reliance on imports, primarily from Chilean brine ponds and subsequent processing in China.

Currently, lithium extraction in the U.S. mostly involves mining, but the lithium in Pennsylvania’s wastewater offers a unique opportunity because it’s a byproduct of existing industrial processes, specifically the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) used to extract gas.

Fracking involves pumping water deep underground to release gas, and this water picks up various minerals, including lithium, from the surrounding shale.

Although the presence of lithium in fracking wastewater was known, the exact amount and potential for extraction were not clear until now.

The team was able to make these estimates thanks to detailed regulatory requirements that mandate companies to report the contents of the wastewater from each well pad.

With this data, the researchers not only quantified how much lithium could be sourced from Pennsylvania but also suggested that similar wastewater in nearby West Virginia might also be a viable source.

The next steps involve assessing the environmental impacts of extracting lithium from wastewater and setting up a pilot facility to refine the extraction techniques.

Currently, wastewater from oil and gas operations is minimally treated and re-injected into the ground, which poses its own environmental concerns.

By tapping into this lithium-rich wastewater, not only could the U.S. significantly advance toward its 2030 lithium production goals, but it could also transform a waste product into a valuable resource.

This approach could represent a significant shift in how we think about and utilize industrial byproducts, turning potential environmental liabilities into economic and environmental assets.