A portable and economic process for quickly extracting rare earth elements (REEs) and lithium from natural brines and produced water from oil & gas extraction has been developed by the US Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), and is said to be attracting commercial attention from industry.
Produced water results when oil or gas is extracted from rocks that contain water. It also results from hydraulic fracturing when fracturing fluid returns to the surface. Produced water is a byproduct of most oil and gas extraction and can also be a source for REEs.
The patented NETL invention is currently being evaluated by One World Lithium Inc for use on naturally occurring brines with the exception of sea water and geothermal brines, through a non-exclusive research and evaluation license. Other invention applications with licensing opportunities include brines produced as a co-product, by-product, or waste stream from industrial practices or energy production/development such as geothermal power plants, oil & gas production, carbon sequestration, enhanced oil recovery, and coal bed methane recovery; and brines produced in association with abandoned mine land.
The NETL technology uses a CO2 injection technique to produce rare earth elements and lithium carbonate directly in brine. This may be leveraged in such a way that the mineralisation of brine could occur almost instantly, even in ambient conditions, allowing the possible recovery of critical materials from brines with little environmental impact.
“The CO2 used in the process is readily available in the air,” stated Anna Nakano, NETL co-inventor. “It can also be sourced from industrial waste streams. Because it is portable enough to facilitate full operation at the source of brine, it eliminates the hundreds of millions of dollars for capital investment that would otherwise be required in current processes.”