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Exxon and the Race for Arkansas Lithium

3 min read

The lithium mining boom is on in south Arkansas, and big fish are jumping into the subterranean water.

After years of development by Standard Lithium of Vancouver, British Columbia, which found ample quantities of lithium in the underground brine of the Smackover Formation, Exxon Mobil has entered the field, The Wall Street Journal reported May 22.

According to the Journal, Exxon spent more than $100 million to buy mineral rights leases on 120,000 acres in southern Arkansas from Galvanic Energy of Oklahoma City.

The land in Lafayette and Columbia counties may hold enough lithium to produce batteries for 50 million electric cars and trucks, Galvanic President and CEO Brent Wilson told Arkansas Business in a telephone interview. The underground mineral leases are on land generally south of Magnolia.

Wilson said his vision was to use well bores to pump up brine in the former oilfields, then extract elements for the renewable energy sector. Then the water would be pumped back in, leaving little footprint.

Of course, getting the lithium will now be Exxon’s project, and the petrochemical company’s approach could be different. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” as Wilson put it.

The brine was once a petroleum drilling byproduct when El Dorado and Smackover were oil boom towns. Of course, Exxon knows its way around a well and an oilfield. It could be drilling within months, the Journal reported.

Exxon is betting on a boom in lithium demand as the nation converts to electric vehicles over the coming years. The purchase from Galvanic gives it a footprint in a region that could be central to a new domestic lithium industry. According to the Journal, Exxon’s projections call for light-duty vehicle demand for internal combustion engine fuels to peak by 2025, “while EVs, hybrids and vehicles fueled by fuel cells” could command half of the new car market by 2050. The oil giant expects global EVs to reach up to 420 million by 2040, up from only 3 million in 2017.

Standard has been refining battery-quality lithium products at test plants in El Dorado, and it recently signed a joint development agreement with Koch Technology Solutions, an affiliate of Koch Engineered Solutions, to work together toward realizing a commercial lithium plant in El Dorado.

KTS is one of several Koch Industries subsidiaries working with Standard. Koch Strategic Platforms made a $100 million direct investment in Standard in 2021, disregarding claims by short-sellers that Standard Lithium had overhyped its technology and production capacity.

Albemarle, a major producer of bromine from the region’s brine, announced a $540 million investment last year in two bromine facilities in Magnolia, and it is also investigating lithium’s potential.

Standard Lithium’s test plants in El Dorado are hooked up to the bromine filtering infrastructure of the German multinational Lanxess, another key partner.

Galvanic’s Wilson certainly believes there’s an industry brewing in the Arkansas brine. He said his company searched all over the United States for four years, and “Smackover was the brightest of all the prospects.”

Brine drawn from deep test wells in Galvanic Energy’s lands yielded lithium concentrations ranging from 290 milligrams per liter to 520 milligrams per liter, some of the highest reported values among all North American brines.

Standard’s test plants have been stripping lithium from the brine with its own novel proprietary extraction method, but the deal with Koch Technology Solutions will integrate a Koch proprietary method, KTS Li-Pro Lithium Selective Sorption, into Standard Lithium’s work toward building a commercial plant.

“The agreement will further enhance Standard Lithium’s position to build the first U.S. commercial lithium project in several decades,” a company news release said.

KTS will also provide performance guarantees for the deployment and the technology to allow “high levels of commercial extraction,” the companies said.

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