Lithium in Marcellus shale gas wells could potentially meet part of US demand

Fracking wastewater. (Image by Faces of Fracking, Flickr.)

A new analysis using compliance data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection suggests that if it could be extracted with complete efficiency, lithium from the wastewater of Marcellus shale gas wells in Pennsylvania could supply up to 40% of the United States demand.

Finding lithium in the wastewater in the Marcellus shale wasn’t a surprise: Researchers had analyzed the water recycled in hydraulic fracking and knew that it picked up minerals and elements from the shale. “But there hadn’t been enough measurements to quantify the resource,” Justin Mackey, a researcher at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, said in a media statement. “We just didn’t know how much was in there.”

Thanks to Pennsylvania regulatory requirements, his team was able to figure it out.

Companies are mandated to submit analyses of wastewater used in each well pad and lithium is one of the substances they must report. “And that’s how we were able to conduct this regional analysis,” Mackie said.

Meeting 30% to 40% of the country’s lithium needs would bring the country much closer to the US Geological Survey’s requirements, which demand all lithium to be produced domestically by 2030.

There’s also lithium-rich wastewater outside of the state’s boundaries. “Pennsylvania has the most robust data source for Marcellus shale,” Mackey said. “But there’s lots of activity in West Virginia, too.”

The next step toward making use of this lithium is to understand the environmental impact of extracting it and to implement a pilot facility to develop extraction techniques.

“Wastewater from oil and gas is a burgeoning issue,” the scientist pointed out. “Right now, it’s just minimally treated and reinjected.”

However, in his view, wastewater has the potential to provide a lot of value. After all, “it’s been dissolving rocks for hundreds of millions of years — essentially, the water has been mining the subsurface.”