Tech on Location with Dwain Hebda: October 2023

A large metal periodic square table of Lithium. The "Li" symbol glows with a light blue light.



Lithium is looking like the new black gold 


Dwain Hebda, Senior Editor, ITArkansas Magazine

EL DORADO, ARKANSAS,¬†is no stranger to the fortunes that lie just under its feet. A century ago, oil was¬†discovered¬†and millionaires were made overnight. Today, the promise of lithium hits the same¬†prospector¬†pitch as black gold once did, and as a major extractor sets up here, it does so with an even more tantalizing promise‚ÄĒgreen mining practices. State and federal officials are crowding the dais with platitudes for what this means to the state.¬†¬†

Lithium is a light, soft metal commonly used in batteries, making them lighter than alkaline models. The spike in demand, however, lies with the automotive industry: Lithium is a central element in batteries for electric vehicles, which has led the U.S. government to place the substance on its list of critical minerals.  Future demand is expected to skyrocket. The Department of Energy’s National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries 2021-2030 projects growth of five to 10 times current levels over the next 10 years, while the Lithium Industry Association forecasted global demand would spike from 292,000 metric tons to 2.5 million metric tons by 2030. 

Lithium mining grows on the back of bromine production. Used in plastics and pharmaceuticals, bromine has been a stronger and more prolific, if less sexy, industry in the south Arkansas region for decades. Bromine is extracted from brine pulled from the earth, a by-product of which is known as tail brine. From that, lithium chloride is extracted, then subjected to reverse osmosis and mechanical vapor recompression to further purify and concentrate the mineral. The system is far greener than traditional harvesting of lithium found in other parts of the U.S., tactics that employ open-pit mining and sulfuric acid.

At the center of the new Arkansas boom is Vancouver-based Standard Lithium. In March 2022, three years after conducting a virtual ribbon cutting of its LiSTR Direct Lithium Extraction Technology Demonstration Plant, the company started drilling in Lafayette County with the purpose of gathering data for a preliminary feasibility study toward building a commercial plant that would pull lithium from underground brine in the Smackover geological formation. 

Since then, things have moved rapidly with the most recent developments being the company’s announcement of the construction of a $365 million lithium plant in El Dorado to come online in 2025, capable of producing 5,900 tons of lithium annually. The company followed that with the September announcement that it had purchased 118 acres of timberland on Arkansas 29 in Lafayette County for a stand-alone $1.3 billion lithium extraction and refinement plant, scheduled to open in 2027. The second plant, to be located just south of Lewisville and approximately 15 miles west of Magnolia, is projected to produce about 33,000 tons of lithium.  

Competitors have been watching closely as Standard Lithium has made its advancements in the area. In July, The Wall Street Journal reported Exxon Mobil plans to build its own plant near Magnolia that would reportedly dwarf what’s being planned now, capable of producing 110,000 tons of lithium a year. 

Standard Lithium is focusing its initial efforts on decommissioned oil wells in the area as the start of what officials call a systematic drilling program, also to include new wells in southern Arkansas examining a variety of geologic formations while giving officials a glimpse of how to optimize well design and placement.