CHEYENNE, Wyo. — University of Wyoming Carbon Management Institute researchers found a vast new lithium resource near Rock Springs during work on a carbon dioxide storage site project, the university announced Wednesday.
The discovery could produce enough money to offset the cost of creating the CO2 storage space deep underground. It also could create a new industry for Wyoming, UW officials said.
Lithium, a key component of batteries and electronic devices, has become highly sought after as nations transition to so-called greener technologies. Wind, solar and smart-grid technologies all employ lithium-ion batteries to store excess energy for later use.
The United States presently imports more than 80 percent of the lithium used domestically. In addition to making CO2 storage cheaper, the potential new lithium resource could have a major impact on the global market, transforming the U.S. from a significant lithium importer to an independent lithium producer.
Preliminary analyses of fluid samples collected from a well drilled on the Rock Springs Uplift — a geological feature in southwest Wyoming — suggest that reservoir brines from a 25-square-mile area of the uplift could contain 228,000 tons of lithium, or enough to meet annual U.S. demand.
The uplift drill site is located east of Rock Springs and slightly north of Point of Rocks.
Ron Surdam, director of the UW Carbon Management Institute, said that high levels of lithium were found in the formation waters after the well was drilled a little more than a year ago.
The waters were re-sampled with the same results when the well was re-entered in November.
"We just wanted to make sure it wasn't a fluke," Surdam said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
Bruce Hinchey, executive director of the Wyoming Petroleum Association, said the lithium find is significant.
"A find like that can start a whole new industry in the state," Hinchey said Wednesday.
Most of the U.S. lithium currently is produced from Silver Lake, Nev. Production there totals 118,000 tons in a 20 square-mile area.
In a best-case scenario, the Rock Springs Uplift could harbor up to 18 million tons of lithium — equivalent to about 720 years of current global lithium production.
A chart on the Internet site for Orocobre Limited, a company in Argentina's lithium producing area, listed the price of lithium carbonate at $5,000 per ton in 2009.
The majority of lithium produced globally is from South America.
Surdam said the production of lithium in Wyoming will require drilling expensive, deep wells. Therefore, to be marketable, the lithium production must be integrated with the carbon storage work.
The purpose of the CO2 project is to protect the Wyoming fossil fuels industry by providing a place to store the product.
Surdam believes most of the coal in the future will be used in conversion to diesel, gasoline, ethanol and fertilizer, like China is doing. The conversion process inherently captures CO2, which then requires storage.
The briny water in the Rock Springs Uplift would have to be removed to allow CO2 storage. In the uplift's case, the water contains lithium.
A big cost in desalinating anything is pressurizing the brine solution. But in this case, Surdam said, the lithium-bearing solution is deep underground and already pressurized, so it can be more inexpensively treated.
Surdam said the southwest Wyoming location is fortunate because production of lithium from brines requires soda ash, which is abundant in Sweetwater County.
The storage site is located within 20 to 30 miles of the world's largest industrial ash supplies, so cost of delivery would be minimal.
"It's interesting how all the resources you need converge on the Rock Springs Uplift," Surdam said.
A lithium industry in Wyoming, he said, would probably be concurrent with CO2 storage.
The scientists at the institute have designed a water treatment plant. The next step will be to refine the design and work with colleagues at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California to do bench, or miniature, experiments, to see if the plant works.
“It will be all ready to go," Surdam said. "It will depend on when the state goes into commercial greenhouse gas storage."
That's what will be required, he said, to have any more power plants built in Wyoming.
"It's all going to happen but it's going to be in the future," he said.