Commercializing lithium should be natural for the Natural State, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week as Exxon Mobil Corp. announced the start of major brine operations in south Arkansas.
The project, which she said would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, is the global energy giant’s first phase of lithium production in the Smackover geological formation. The same area’s oil boom nearly a century ago put towns like El Dorado and Magnolia on the energy map.
Now it’s ground zero in a race toward domestic lithium production for the hot lithium-ion battery market and a future filled with millions of electric vehicles.
“As the Natural State, I think that is one of the best things about Arkansas: We want to protect our natural resources,” the governor said at a state Capitol news conference. “But that also means that we should tap into them where we can. This has the ability to really transform a lot of south Arkansas. … That’s a good thing for our state, and I’m a big believer that the Natural State is one of the unique selling propositions of Arkansas, something we should lean into, not shy away from.”
Exxon Mobil reportedly paid more than $100 million to Galvanic Energy of Oklahoma City for 120,000 acres of mineral rights in Arkansas. It hopes to be producing lithium by 2027 and to be a leading worldwide supplier by 2030. “We’re looking forward to investing in Arkansas as we advance these important projects,” said Patrick Howarth, Exxon’s lithium global business manager, standing at Sanders’ side.
Exxon’s investment didn’t surprise Standard Lithium Ltd. CEO Robert Mintak, whose company has been refining lithium carbonate at a test production facility in El Dorado for several years. Standard has advanced plans for a commercial lithium plant in El Dorado that would produce 5,000 tons of lithium chemicals per year, and is testing the feasibility of building a $1.3 billion, 30,000-ton-per-year plant west of Magnolia.
Backed by Koch Industries, Standard has new wells in East Texas that boast the highest lithium concentrations anywhere in North America, and it has two direct-lithium-extraction technologies to test as it moves toward the market. It also has a partnership with Lanxess, the global chemical company that extracts bromine from the brine. It uses Lanxess’ well-and-pipeline infrastructure near El Dorado to feed its lithium extraction facilities.
Albemarle of Charlotte, North Carolina, is also looking to add lithium to its longtime bromine operations in Magnolia and elsewhere in south Arkansas. Albemarle is the world’s largest lithium producer, with mines in Australia and Chile. It also operates the only active U.S. lithium mine in Esmeralda County, Nevada, and recently received a $90 million Defense Department grant to reopen its Kings Mountain Mine in North Carolina.
Albemarle derives lithium from salt lake brines in Nevada and Chile that are pumped into vast evaporation ponds. Its 49%-owned Australian mine derives lithium from spodumene ore.
Standard and now Exxon Mobil promote direct extraction from the brine as an advanced method for the 21st century.
“The Smackover Formation in Arkansas is about 10,000 feet below the surface,” Howarth said. “We’ll be drilling wells into that formation, extracting the brine to the surface, and then using modern processing techniques that are significantly lower environmental impact.”
Dan Ammann, president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, called domestically produced lithium essential to America’s energy transition. “This landmark project applies decades of Exxon Mobil expertise to unlock vast supplies of North American lithium with far fewer environmental impacts than traditional mining operations.”