Op-ed: Albemarle should build their Magnolia DLE project

DLE promises to produce lithium with a smaller footprint than most other processes, but who will get it built?

Alex Grant Principal, Jade Cove Partners, San Francisco, US
  The first half of 2021 has seen an explosion of news flow around DLE

The first half of 2021 has seen an explosion of news flow around DLE

I was sitting down for dinner on the West Coast in March when I picked up a call from an unknown number. "Can I speak to Alex? This is Eric Lipton from the New York Times."

I heard through my phone. Eric was doing research on the environmental and social impacts of lithium extraction, and he had found online a presentation I gave at Stanford for the California Energy Commission just before Covid shut everything down. He wanted to know how much water would be consumed in the process of making lithium chemicals from Salton Sea geothermal brine using direct lithium extraction compared to purely evaporative brine-derived chemicals from Chile or Argentina. I asked him what he meant by water, and if he thought that brine was water. "Of course, it is, isn't it?" he replied.

Not so fast, Eric.

Chilean brine operators in particular have not historically done a stellar job explaining the nature of mineralised brines, with some even making absurd statements like "brine is not water". Brine is undeniably a type of water but there is no universe in which freshwater consumption ( < 2 g/L of salt) and brine (> 100 g/L of salt) should be equated. They are both types of water, but they have very different properties. When discussing water use in lithium extraction, they should both be reported, but reported separately.1

A couple months later, Eric published "The Lithium Gold Rush: Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles".2 Despite a couple little technical faux-pas, he did a good job describing the way that people in the United States think about the environmental impacts of lithium extraction for better or for worse. His focus was the Thacker Pass sedimentary claystone project in development in Nevada, which appears to potentially not have free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of local indigenous communities. Environmental impact issues are discussed in the article, but they do not take as much limelight as the question of the project's social license to operate. 

After dissecting the question of social license at Thacker Pass, the article pivots from Northern Nevada to Southern California, where developers are working on projects to make lithium chemicals from geothermal brine with direct lithium extraction (DLE). In a geothermal DLE process, high salt content, high temperature, high-pressure brine is lifted from kilometers below ground to produce energy from the steam released when pressure is reduced. Developers propose to subsequently extract lithium from the brine using selective media which remove lithium while leaving behind the water and other salts so they can be re-injected. Geothermal DLE processes could emit less CO2 than operating comparables, and could consume minimal freshwater with modern water recycling technologies. The vision is compelling, but it is important to remember that no one is yet producing lithium chemicals from geothermal brines, and some groups working on them will fail.

The concept that DLE is an environmentally superior technology for making lithium chemicals compared to evaporative processes or digging something up seems to resonate with a lot of people. I suppose that if the water in brine is categorized the same way as freshwater, then lithium chemicals made from brines using evaporative processes have an extremely high water intensity. However, if that water is of such a low quality that it cannot be used by animals, plants, or humans for virtually anything, then are we not multiplying a very large flow of water by "zero impact per liter"? I think so. This is similar to how evaporation ponds consume an order of magnitude more energy than other process technologies, but it's direct solar so it emits 0 gCO2/kWh, and the total CO2 emissions from ponds can still be low. If evaporative projects disrupt the hydrogeology of basins, impacting freshwater resources which may be connected to brine resources, that is another story. There are a dozen advantages to DLE that are more compelling than saving water in brine, including reducing sensitivity to climate variations, minimal land footprint, faster process development, the ability to unlock brines in industrialized jurisdictions, and the purity of concentrates which allow for simplified conventional downstream processing to battery chemicals. 


People with incentives to build narratives around the environmental destruction of lithium extraction don't care about the nuances of water and brine. This is problematic because it has real-world implications for how relevant stakeholders like governments and investors think about environmental performance of making lithium chemicals, and in turn the batteries we use to power electric vehicles. Either deceptively inflating or concealing environmental impacts is wrong and neither should be tolerated. It seems that most people are compelled by the promise of DLE to have minimal physical footprint. For better or for worse, the amount of space an extraction project occupies has a huge impact on how people think about environmental performance: seemingly more important than any technical life cycle assessment impact category like global warming potential or freshwater depletion. Geothermal DLE promises to produce lithium with a physical footprint orders of magnitude smaller than evaporative processes or sedimentary clay projects like Thacker Pass. 3

Open Pits

Open pit mining underpins our fancy technologies, but no one likes to live near an open pit. No one likes to know that explosions are happening nearby in an open pit. The word "open pit" is sometimes used synonymously to mean "environmental destruction", despite the fact that miners around the world dig open pits to make all sorts of products required to make an advanced technological world spin. Nearly all of the products used in the construction industry come from open pits. Blowing up mountains is needed not just for a "green" world, but any world. But "green" means nothing. Mining companies sometimes greenwash descriptions of their projects to investors to try to convince them that their products will score highly in "ESG rankings". De-growthers sometimes weaponize the word "green" in the opposite sense: some propose that we ought to go back to riding horses to get around instead of decarbonizing transportation with electric vehicles. But the quantity of feed, water, and land needed to keep all those horses alive probably would be much more than the quantity of battery metals needed to make electric vehicle batteries.

The blurriness of the word "green" makes it a dangerous participant in the language of environmental impacts. It is possible to talk about environmental impacts articulately. Life cycle assessment provides globally respected methodologies for discussing scope 1, 2, and 3 CO2 emissions of an operation, or comparing water use in different jurisdictions with different levels of water availability. There are dozens of other inter-related impact categories to consider. In the future, the over-zealous use of the word "green" to describe the environmental performance of something without scientific modeling to back it up will actually come to indicate that a company is trying to conceal an environmental liability. Weaponising the language of environmental performance to achieve commercial, social, or political goals is both lazy and wrong.



Thacker Pass will almost certainly be built because its products are needed for electrification and decarbonization of transportation. Locals will face disproportionate impact, but this is the reality of open pits. No one likes it, but open pits are essential. Just because Thacker Pass will be an open pit does not mean that it is an environmental disaster. There are not many lithium projects as big as Thacker Pass, and there are growing expectations from analysts worldwide that availability of materials like lithium will soon become the bottleneck for electrification.4 At the end of the day, Thacker Pass and other American mining operations will back-fill their pits, meaning that no open pit will remain after operations cease. This is a different outcome from what occurred historically, brought on by better regulations and modern expectations.

DLE in the USA

If no one likes open pits, and DLE can avoid the need to dig open pits, then it seems uncontroversial that we should advance as many DLE projects as possible to minimize the number of open pits we need to dig. Unfortunately, the story of Salton Sea geothermal DLE is a decade long tragicomedy.

Simbol Materials was a technology company which spent considerable time, energy, and capital to de-risk geothermal lithium in the early 2010s. In 2014, Tesla made an offer to buy the company for $325M, but the company's investors wanted significantly more.5 The deal fell through and the company went bankrupt. Its valuable intellectual property was bought out of bankruptcy and passed down to what is today a joint venture between a country music star and an oil company.6

The Tesla offer would not have been made if there was no merit in the technological approach. The main reason why lithium chemicals are not produced commercially at the Salton Sea today are not technical. There are commercial and political issues which not very many people know about, and which the country music star - oil company JV and other players may not be able to solve any time soon. Hopefully the Salton Sea can move beyond this, unleashing development of the resource. Until then, it might make more sense to highlight other DLE brine opportunities in the United States. There is at least one other major compelling prospect.

The Smackover formation under Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi is a gigantic limestone aquifer containing brines with lithium concentrations similar to the Salton Sea.7 There are thousands of deep wells in the Smackover already drilled, and dozens of wells which have produced industrial minerals and chemicals from the formation's brines for decades. Lithium has been contemplated as a target for a long time but we didn't really need it until now.

Standard Lithium is the most advanced developer in the Smackover. They are a technology company working with a bromine producer named Lanxess on brownfield DLE on a flowing brine. Similar to the Salton Sea, brine is lifted from deep in the ground, products removed like bromine, and soon lithium extracted before re-injecting brine, which has been happening for more than four decades with understood hydrogeological dynamics. Standard Lithium is operating a demonstration plant, and has produced kilograms of battery-quality lithium carbonate samples.

Magnolia Blooming Season

The Smackover region represents a major opportunity for Albemarle, the biggest lithium producer in the world, and also a producer of bromine from Smackover brines. If Standard Lithium has demonstrated that the Smackover can be an economic source of lithium chemicals, and Albemarle already controls huge flows of brine there, then they should develop their Smackover assets for lithium production too. In all of the company's corporate presentations, their Magnolia, Arkansas brine operation is listed as a lithium resource and described as world-class. Exactly ten years ago, Albemarle announced a pilot plant to produce lithium chemicals at Magnolia using DLE.8 They even said in 2011 that they would produce 20,000 tonneLCE/year with economics competitive with South America. That is an interesting statement from a producer that makes lithium chemicals from the Salar de Atacama in Chile.9

Considering the size of the Smackover, maybe one could say it's the Atacama of DLE brine resources? No one is strongly motivated to say this because there is no reason to promote Albemarle on a stock market, but I think it's a fair comparison: the geography over the Smackover formation has everything a DLE project needs (industrial labor, reagents, energy, and freshwater), the same way that the most cost-effective way to process Atacama brine is evaporation because of the geochemistry and climate. If Albemarle, Standard Lithium, and Lanxess someday produce 120,000 tonneLCE/year total from the Smackover, it would eliminate the need to dig two Thacker Pass-sized pits, and avoid the disproportionate impacts to local people of two other pits. Hopefully the Salton Sea will catch up too and can obviate the need for another two Thacker Pass-sized pits.

There is recent commercial activity supporting the idea that the market would appreciate a Magnolia lithium product. BMW awarded Livent with a contract for lithium chemicals made at the only commercial scale DLE facility in the Western Hemisphere. In the language of the press release, BMW discusses Livent's unique technology for lithium extraction as a motivator for the contract. This makes this contract the world's first DLE off-take: real commercial impact of DLE's environmental value proposition, and a clear case showing that laymen feelings about DLE are shared by one of the world's major battery buyers.10 It could enhance Albemarle's competitiveness in the European battery industry, where minimizing environmental and social impacts are a top priority. Magnolia lithium could maybe even fetch a price premium compared to competitors with higher impact profiles.

The first half of 2021 has seen an explosion of news flow around DLE from major organizations like Schlumberger, Eramet, DuPont, and Mitsui, as well as the US Department of Energy. Albemarle now has so many good options for technology to build Magnolia, and Livent has proven the environmental value proposition of DLE in the real-world marketplace. Building Magnolia would align the company well with the mission of the battery industry. With so much potential benefit to Albemarle, the company's shareholders, and the energy transition, the company should start making material moves towards building a DLE brine project at Magnolia.

We can appreciate the rich symbolism: the magnolia was the first flower to evolve on Earth, and one of the first demonstrations of DLE in history was on Smackover brine in the 1960s.

Significant DLE Activity from Early 2021





Thank you to my friends from across the industry, including some digging open pits and others involved with building DLE projects, who kindly reviewed this article and provided helpful feedback.



(1) Grant, 2020. Is Lithium Brine Water? URL.

(2) Penn, Lipton, 2021. The Lithium Gold Rush: Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles. URL .

(3) Grant, Pell, Deak, 2020. Geothermal Lithium: The Final Frontier of Decarbonization. URL.

(4) International Energy Agency, 2021. The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. URL .

(5) Roth, 2016. Tesla Offered 325 Million for Salton Sea Startup. URL .

(6) PR Newswire, 2021. TerraLithium Receives Affirmation of Patents for Foundational Lithium Production Processes and Technologies. URL .

(7) Garrett, 2004. Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium Chloride. URL .

(8) Magnolia Report, 2011. Albemarle Corporation's South Arkansas Brine May Soon Power Cars with Lithium. URL .

(9) C&EN, 2011. Albemarle to Make Lithium. URL .

(10) BMW Group, 2021. BMW Group steps up sustainable sourcing of lithium for battery cell production to ensure rapid e-mobility expansion. URL .

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