Rising lithium prices are luring several major oil and gas companies towards the lithium market. Equinor, ExxonMobil, Occidental Petroleum and Schlumberger are among the companies examining how key technologies around pumping and processing could be used in the processing of lithium.
With lithium demand reaching new heights as the world moves to electrification, oil and gas companies are trying to diversify their operations to ensure their future security.
ExxonMobil reportedly spent more than $100m purchasing oilfield brines containing lithium, while Equinor took a stake in Lithium de France in 2021. Occidental is also exploring the field, as it jointly owns lithium technology group TerraLithium.
Much of the interest by oil companies comes in hope of developing technology surrounding direct lithium extraction (DLE), a method of lithium extraction that could immensely speed up extraction times compared with current technologies. Current extraction methods recover around 40–60% of available lithium, while DLE yields recovery rates of 60–80%. However, the technology is currently unproven at scale, and more research and development is needed to bring it to commercial reality.
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Companies who invest in US-based lithium mining technologies qualify for subsidies through the country’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), making investment in DLE projects currently under way in Nevada and Utah an attractive proposition.
Brian Menell, chief executive of mining investment fund TechMet, says that the industrial skills oil and gas companies use every day make them ideally placed to move into the lithium mining market.
“It is a natural evolution for oil companies.” he remarked. “Lithium brines are an obvious one as unlike charging networks and wind farms, where they have no skills besides project management, they are skilled at subsurface pumping and fluids.”