Could anti-frackers derail renewable energy?


I learned a new word this week, the mere mention of which may cause the heads of anti-frackers to blow up all over Boulder County.

The word is “petrolithium.”

First, some background.

If you’re into replacing oil and gas with renewable energy, the three most terrifying words you can hear are “batteries not included.”

Most renewable energy comes in the form of electricity generated by wind and solar cells. The single biggest barrier to these technologies becoming the primary source of U.S. electric power is the absence of suitable batteries to store their output for times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing — which is more than half the time.

Without massive battery storage, wind and solar electricity is unlikely to ever account for more than a quarter to a third of U.S. electricity production.

Without better, cheaper batteries, electric vehicles won’t replace America’s 200 million gasoline- and diesel-powered ones. Nor will electricity replace natural gas for heating tens of millions of American homes and businesses.

The good news is that batteries are getting better. The bad news is that there’s a nasty bottleneck ahead: The availability of lithium.

The best commercially available batteries are made with lithium — including those used in Tesla cars and virtually all cell phones, laptops and tablet computers.

And the world’s current lithium production methods aren’t going to come remotely close to meeting demand.

Tesla’s giga factory in Nevada, which is just beginning to ramp up battery production, is projected to use as much as 17 percent of the world’s existing lithium supply.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs project demand for lithium will triple by 2025 to 570,000 tons. Credit Suisse analysts forecast that demand for lithium will potentially reach as high as 125 percent of total capacity by the end of the decade.

Lithium is currently selling for $10,000 a metric ton or about $4.50 cents a pound. One reason it’s so expensive is that the two current ways of producing it — solar evaporation from salt brines in Bolivian and Chilean deserts, and hard rock mining — are inefficient and time-consuming. The solar evaporation method, for instance, takes at least 18 months and recovers less than 50 percent of the lithium in place.

If the bank analysts are right about demand, lithium isn’t going to get any cheaper unless there is a major breakthrough in how its produced.

And that’s where petrolithium comes in. Petrolithium is lithium present in the waste water from oil and natural gas production, and it turns out there’s a lot of it. This includes water that’s produced with oil and gas, water that’s used to frack the wells, and, in the Canadian oil sands, water that’s recovered from steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAG-D) heavy oil production.

Now, a Canadian company called MGX Minerals says it has developed a process that can competitively recover lithium from the waste.

The process combines technologies developed by MGX and two other Canadian companies it’s partnering with — PurLucid Treatment Solutions, Inc. of Calgary and David Bromley Engineering, Ltd. of Vancouver. The process starts by removing oil, colloids and several metals from lithium-bearing brines, using a technique called “nano-flotation” followed by an advanced form of ultra-filtration, which is similar to reverse osmosis. Removing the oil from the waste stream is a key step; up until now its presence has prevented the recovery of lithium from the waste water. The de-oiled liquid is then flash frozen and evaporated under reduced pressure conditions to yield a precipitate with high concentrations of lithium carbonate.

The whole process can be done in a day, compared with the 18 months required to produce lithium with solar evaporation. Clean water is produced as a co-product.

MGX CEO Jared Lazerson, claims the process “may prove to be one of the most important developments in the energy industry since the commercial development of shale oil. In addition to the potential environmental benefits of producing reusable water, the extraction of lithium from oil production water now ties the future of big oil to the new energy industry.

“It is an amazing twist of fate that the largest existing production of lithium brine on a daily basis is coming from oil wells. Millions and millions of barrels of lithium brine bearing water are being produced every day in North America,” he added.

It’s also an amazing twist of fate that the anti-frackers’ attempt to shut down oil and natural gas production will, if it succeeds, also shut down access to the largest and most accessible source of the material that will make a renewable energy economy possible.

It will be fascinating to see what they decide to do if petrolithium production turns into a game-changing reality: Give up their anti-fracking crusade, which will be a crusade against both oil and lithium, or carry on regardless. Bet it’s the latter.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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