Feb 20, 2024 - News

Lithium summit highlights industry's potential for Arkansas

Animated illustration of a charging battery stylied as a neon light.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

ExxonMobil plans to produce enough lithium from its land leases in south Arkansas to power 1 million electric vehicles a year by 2030, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports.

Driving the news: The first Arkansas Lithium Innovation Summit — a gathering of nearly 700 industry professionals, policymakers and ancillary business leaders — was held last week in Little Rock.

Why it matters: Demand for lithium batteries will increase as consumers continue to adopt electric cars. In the U.S. the need is expected to grow sixfold by 2030, turning into a $55 billion annual industry.

State of play: The nascent extraction industry in Arkansas has yet to produce any commercial-grade lithium, an integral part of rechargeable batteries. But Canada's Standard Lithium and ExxonMobil are betting new technologies will squeeze the mineral from the Smackover formation.

How it works: Briny water is pumped from the formation and circulated through several proprietary filters designed to capture lithium, which then must be processed further before it can be used in batteries.

  • The brine is returned to the formation, making the process more environmentally friendly than strip or evaporative mines.

Quick take: Much work remains; the direct extraction process hasn't yet proven to be financially viable.

  • "At pilot scale, most work, but the challenge is around commercializing it — how you integrate that technology with all the other elements within that process flow to be able to produce [a] product people need safely and reliably," said Patrick Howarth, lithium global business manager for ExxonMobil.
  • The lithium industry must scale tenfold by 2040 to meet the United Nations' 2050 net-zero goals, said Andrew Miller, chief executive of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
  • Lithium is a challenging market, Standard Lithium CEO Robert Mintak told the Democrat-Gazette, but investors see now as the right time to get into the industry.

What they're saying: "Who knew that our quiet brine and bromine industry had the potential to change the world?" Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in opening remarks at the Little Rock summit.

  • "There are plenty of reasons for us to be bullish on Arkansas lithium. Frankly, we can do it cleaner here than it's produced anywhere else in the world."

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