Could PA’s Fracking Wastewater Supply Nearly Half of U.S. Lithium Demand?

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Photo by Brad Weaver on Unsplash

by | Jun 3, 2024

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In 2007, Penn State geoscientist Terry Engelder estimated that Pennsylvania housed over 50 trillion cubic feet of accessible natural gas deposits. He later revised this figure to 489 trillion cubic feet, enough to meet U.S. natural gas demand for 18 years. This revelation sparked the fracking boom in Pennsylvania, resulting in the drilling of 13,000 unconventional wells across the state.

New Findings on Lithium in Wastewater

Recently, a study from the National Energy Technology Laboratory introduced a groundbreaking discovery: Pennsylvania’s unconventional wells produce wastewater containing sufficient lithium to meet 38 to 40 percent of current U.S. consumption. This mineral is essential for clean energy technologies, including electric vehicle batteries.

The study utilized chemical and production compliance data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to estimate that approximately 1,160 metric tons of lithium could be extracted annually from this produced water. The lithium likely originates from ancient volcanic activity that infused the underground water with lithium-rich ash.

Lead investigator Justin Mackey emphasized the importance of finding materials and methods to meet climate goals and decarbonize the economy. He expressed surprise at the discovery, noting that the lithium concentrations in Marcellus Shale wastewater are comparable to those found in lithium-rich brine sources.

Industry Reaction and Potential Benefits

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, representing the natural gas industry in the region, welcomed the findings. They highlighted the potential for Pennsylvania’s natural gas to enhance U.S. energy security and environmental sustainability. Currently, the U.S. relies on lithium imports from countries like Argentina, Chile, and China, and demand is expected to rise with the clean energy transition.

Mackey underscored lithium’s strategic importance for the American economy and defense industries, pointing out the insecure supply chains from foreign sources. He advocated for developing domestic sources to support the U.S. automotive fleet’s decarbonization.

Skepticism and Environmental Concerns

Despite the enthusiasm, some experts, such as John Quigley from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, remain cautious. Quigley questioned the economic feasibility and environmental impact of extracting lithium from wastewater at scale. He highlighted the significant costs and logistical challenges of processing and transporting wastewater from multiple well sites.

However, Quigley warned against using lithium extraction as a justification to continue drilling, emphasizing the need for a carbon-free economy by 2050. He also pointed out the ongoing issue of managing toxic fracking wastewater, which contains harmful substances like salts, metals, and radioactive elements.

Existing Efforts and Future Prospects

Eureka Resources in Lycoming County is already working on lithium extraction from produced water, reporting successful extraction of 97 percent pure lithium carbonate. They plan to implement this process in their Pennsylvania facilities within the next two years.

Shannon Smith from FracTracker expressed concerns about the potential for the industry to expand operations in Pennsylvania. She stressed the need for robust regulatory oversight to manage a new lithium economy and protect public health.

The study concluded that the continuous addition of new Marcellus wells would be necessary to sustain lithium extraction, particularly in north-central Pennsylvania, where some of the highest lithium concentrations were found. However, Mackey and co-author Barbara Kutchko acknowledged that further research is needed to understand the economic and technological implications fully.

Opportunities and Challenges

The discovery of significant lithium reserves in Pennsylvania’s fracking wastewater presents both opportunities and challenges. While it could reduce U.S. reliance on foreign lithium, the environmental and economic feasibility of large-scale extraction remains to be determined. Experts urge a cautious approach, emphasizing the need for thorough research and consideration of alternative clean energy technologies. As Pennsylvania navigates this potential new resource, learning from past experiences with energy extraction is crucial to avoid unintended consequences.

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