Vancouver, British Columbia-based Standard Lithium, which has been operating a demonstration facility in El Dorado to mine the soft metal used in batteries, is targeting a final investment decision and construction start on a full-sized plant in 2024.
The company has been operating in Arkansas for more than five years, when it defined what Chief Executive Officer Robert Mintak called "the best lithium brine resource in North America," the geological Smackover Formation, which has thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells bored into it.
"The work that we've been doing has been meticulous, so when we move to scale commercially, we'll have done as much trial and testing," Mintak said.
"We still have some work to do. We have completed a couple of agreements. Lanxess, a German chemical company that has operations in South Arkansas: three brine-processing facilities they produce bromine from," he said. "Our first project ties into their existing pipelines. We take the brine after Lanxess has taken the bromine out."
After agreements with Lanxess are signed, Standard Lithium will need to raise $365 million in capital financing for its work, Mintak said. Paris-based bank BNP Paribas, well-established in lithium mining, is working with Standard Lithium on project financing, he said.
Plans for a much larger, $1.4 billion facility, will be developed in parallel with the first project, he said.
A partnership with Wichita, Kan.-based Koch Industries helps with funding, as does "an extremely strong shareholder base in Arkansas," Mintak said, and federal economic aid for rare minerals mining is also an option.
"The build-time, the fabrication of the equipment and the necessary earthworks are minimal at the project, but it is a very tight market on the supply chain. So we have to allow guidance and allow for some of the challenges in the supply chain right now. That would allow us to begin commissioning the plant and production in 2026," he said.
"Establishing the extraction process is key to unlocking the Smackover Formation," Mintak said. "It's earlier-stage, but the purpose of this work is defining how to get the lithium out on a small scale for the first project and then replicating it across the region -- and not pausing while we're doing both projects."
Direct lithium extraction works by pulling lithium ions, among other elements like hydrocarbons, out of brine, then refining the precipitate. This technology is nothing new, but it has yet to be commercially successful on a large scale. Mintak said the lithium industry's interest in direct lithium extraction is because of its higher recovery rate and purity of product.
"We try to be very careful in not saying we're so much better than other projects, because every project requires a specific extraction process," Mintak said. "We're seeing recoveries of lithium from brine using the process that we've designed and tested with our partners, Koch Industries, for the characteristics of the Smackover brines of higher than 90%."
A 42-gallon barrel yields only around 1 1/2 ounces of lithium, therefore requiring huge amounts of the brine to be pumped to the surface from wells 6,000 to 8,000 feet deep. The target for larger Standard Lithium projects is 5,000-plus gallons pumped per minute.
The brine is filtered, then run over a resin that pulls lithium ions out. Mintak described the resin as "a fixed bed; when lithium passes across it, the lithium is absorbed onto this media."
"It's a continuous loop," Mintak said. "Production of brine, filtration, loading the brine into these columns, if you like, that are loaded with the resin. The brine passes across it. The lithium is pulled from the brine."
The end result in Standard Lithium's direct lithium extraction process is a lithium chloride solution, which is then concentrated to remove water through osmotically assisted reverse osmosis, a purification process.
Lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide are the final results, used in lithium ion batteries, in demand for electric vehicles.
Standard Lithium's yearslong research at its El Dorado pilot plant has been to find the most cost-effective system.
The company has tried several processes for extracting lithium, finding the method that uses water to be better than ones that use acids. And they've researched how the resins and media work over thousands of polishing cycles in different environmental conditions. All to find, Mintak said, "the highest recovery, the lowest reagent consumption, the longest life cycle of materials and that the equipment choices that we use are tested through extreme conditions."
Standard Lithium's work is shadowed by a February 2022 report by investment research firm Hindenburg Research, which, among other things, noted that corporate profits from direct lithium extraction have remained elusive over the decades since the processes were developed.
"Ordinarily, the mining industry is risk-averse, so we've had to manage that challenge and 'haters' out there who say, 'If someone else hasn't done it, why can they do it?'" he said. "The world didn't need the lithium until recently, so mining companies have access to the best resources that they can use traditional methods for. And they've done that successfully. They've scaled up to meet the world demand using the highest-grade resources, using traditional mining applications."
In Standard Lithium's case, "We're working in an area where pumping brine is the primary energy requirement," Mintak said. "The actual extraction of the lithium doesn't use a lot of electricity -- it's the pumping of the brine. But we're working in an area where energy costs are very effective. If we were doing this in a region where we didn't have low-cost energy, we may have to rethink the process."
"We spent three years optimizing our process from start to finish so that we would know that we've tested, over thousands and thousands of cycles, the most optimal positions we can identify," Mintak said. "It's been an extensive exercise, but that is how you define the design and the equipment for the first commercial project. It's not easy. It's easy to point from the sidelines and say, 'No one has done it, why can they?'
"For the first project, modestly, we're not trying to swing for the fences. And with our partnership with Koch, we get certain performance warranties within the lithium-extraction process that a company like Koch will stand behind."
Exxon Mobil, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on research and development, is reportedly trying to make DLE work in South Arkansas, too, which Mintak said is a validation of what Standard Lithium is doing. He noted that his company's name knowingly mimics John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil, of which Exxon is a direct corporate descendant, and said that Standard Lithium's honed industrial methods will lead to success in South Arkansas.
Around 40 people work in South Arkansas for Standard Lithium, between administrators, technicians, engineers and operators. A "couple dozen" people work in Vancouver, Mintak said, alongside team members in New York and Atlanta and contractors in Texas, over which the Smackover Formation extends.