Lithium: ExxonMobil Has Entered the Game

Cody Good
Lithium brines
Evaporating lithium brines in Chile, courtesy of Reuters

“Being salty” can be an expression of resentfulness or irritation. Like when your Edmonton Oilers fumble their season despite having two of the best players in the league and sack yet another head coach.

Sometimes though, being salty is a good thing.

What happened: Yesterday, ExxonMobil announced its lithium strategy with an aim to start producing the critical mineral by 2027, starting with a project in Arkansas alongside partner Tetra Technologies.

  • As inventors of the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery, Exxon looks ready to profit off nostalgia like its Pete Davidson buying up thousands of VHS tapes.

Digging deeper: The main production method today involves mining or pumping lithium-rich brines out of reservoirs then separating out the lithium via evaporation.

But instead of leaving it to dry in the sun, Exxon is planning to extract the saline brines, much like it produces oil and gas, and then use chemical processing to separate out target minerals.

  • The process is called direct lithium extraction (DLE) and offers the potential to significantly improve recovery rates.
direct lithium extraction technology
Diagram of direct lithium extraction plant, courtesy of ExxonMobil

So, what’s in Arkansas? In May of this year, Exxon acquired rights to roughly 120,000 acres of land from Galvanic Energy with reports it contains one of the most concentrated lithium brine reservoirs in North America.

  • The acreage is estimated to hold 4 million tons of lithium or enough to build 50 million EVs.

Exxon expects its production to supply one million electric vehicles per year by 2030 while being more than 60 percent less carbon-intensive than mining.

Zoom out: Exxon isn’t the first company to explore lithium production from DLE, but it is the first supermajor to do so.

The move into lithium appears like Exxon may not be doubling down into just fossil fuels, as many thought with their acquisition of Pioneer, but rather into its overall area of expertise, drilling and producing fluids from underground.