MGX Minerals of Vancouver, British Columbia is looking to feed growing demand for lithium from an unlikely source: oil extraction wastewater. 

At present, the water that is produced as part of the oil extraction process is disposed. But it contains lithium carbonate, a key material for lithium-ion battery manufacturing, which MGX Minerals expects to be able to obtain commercially by the end of this year.

Last month the company announced it had processed wastewater and lithium brine from two mines and six oil and gas sites in North America, using a pilot plant capable of handling a cubic meter of water an hour.

Independent assays of the lithium and other minerals extracted, along with the purity of the resulting water, were expected “in the next three weeks,” MGX CEO Jared Lazerson told GTM.

“We're currently in talks with many oil and gas companies for use of their water, as well as [having] our own operations in Utah,” he said.

MGX already has customers lined up to take “as much as we can produce until the foreseeable future,” he commented. “The demand for lithium compounds right now is extraordinary, and this is the root of the opportunity.” 

The cost of extracting lithium from wastewater would depend on the source, he said, with more mineralized water costing more to process but potentially having a higher yield.

At present, however, MGX can remove the oil and other contaminants from water at a cost of about $1 per barrel, and extract the lithium and other minerals from this for roughly the same cost again, according to Lazerson.

In time, MGX should be able to improve the recycling of the reagents it uses, and cut the cost in half, he said. This would make the process competitive with conventional production in the "lithium triangle" of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, Lazerson stated.

Besides cost-competitiveness, MGX’s process offers two other advantages, he said. One is that it turns wastewater into clean water as a byproduct, which “provides a tremendous benefit” even though it adds to the cost, said Lazerson.

The other bonus is that lithium can be extracted from oilfield brine in just a few days. This compares to the 18 months or so that it takes to produce lithium through solar evaporation, which Lazerson said was the most common method of extraction at present.

MGX claims it can recover almost 70 percent of the lithium in oil wastewater using its process, and “this will continue to improve,” Lazerson said.

For magnesium, the rate is already 99 percent, he claimed, noting that the high level of recovery of other minerals would result in lithium with few impurities.

And while petrochemical extraction is expected to diminish in the future due to the electrification of transport being ushered in by lithium-ion batteries, “oil exploration and production will continue to be a huge part of the global energy economy for decades to come,” said Lazerson.

“We aren't expecting a shortage of oil fields to partner with to extract petro-lithium at any point in the foreseeable future,” he said. “That said, our process can also be applied to inefficient wells where the lithium part of the equation makes the wells profitable again.”

If successful, MGX’s process will add to a growing arsenal of methods devoted to shoring up lithium supplies for the electric-vehicle and stationary-storage battery industries.

Although most lithium supplies currently come from a few mining concerns in Australia and Latin America, other players are seeking to expand the market by processing reserves that are ignored by the industry.

In Australia, for example, Lithium Australia (formerly Cobre Montana) has developed a process to obtain the element from lithium micas, which are relatively common but are not used by traditional mining interests.

Given the eagerness to develop new sources of lithium, analysts do not foresee significant challenges in supply.

Colin McKerracher at Bloomberg New Energy Finance said: “Our view is that there are some potential lithium pinch points in the next few years, but that in the long term even very rapid electric-vehicle growth would still only require a fraction of known global lithium reserves."

“We think enough new supply will come on-line to meet demand,” he added.