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Geothermal brine may be a new U.S. source of lithium

By Gerald Parkinson |

Currently the U.S. has only one domestic source of lithium, a vital element in lithium-ion batteries and other products, but this could be changed through processes being developed by two California companies. Furthest along is a project of EnergySource Minerals LLC (San Diego, Calif.; www.energysource.us.com) to obtain lithium from geothermal brine. The company has a pilot plant at a geothermal power plant near Southern California’s Salton Sea, where its affiliate, EnergySource, produces electricity by pumping geothermal brine of about 500°F and 500 psig through wells and flashing it to produce steam for turbines.

The brine contains about 25–30% solids, including about 250 parts per million (ppm) of lithium. Silica is managed by a crystallizer-clarifier process and the spent brine, containing dissolved solids, is reinjected into the ground. In the lithium process, clarified brine is purified, then lithium is selectively extracted by a proprietary adsorbent and recovered by a water wash. The process is continuous and the plant design is mechanically simple, with multiple columns controlled by a single valve, says Derek Benson, EnergySource’s chief operating officer. “We get high lithium recovery and very high rejection of unwanted dissolved solids.”

Lithium is recovered as lithium chloride, but Benson says the final product will probably be lithium hydroxide, which is replacing lithium carbonate as the favored material for batteries. EnergySource Minerals plans to activate a commercial plant producing about 19,000 m.t./yr in early 2023.

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