Albemarle Corporation said Friday that it has developed a proprietary technology for lithium extraction from brine.
This newly developed technology will allow the company to recover lithium that is present in the brines at its Magnolia, Arkansas bromine facility and utilize it to produce lithium carbonate.
The market for lithium chemicals is expected to grow rapidly, reaching $1.2 billion globally by 2015, primarily from increased demand for batteries in electrical vehicles. Using this new technology and brine from its bromine production facility, Albemarle has successfully produced lithium carbonate in a lab setting and is currently operating a pilot plant to optimize the process. Commercial production could begin as early as 2013.
"Albemarle has extensive experience in brine management and recovery of products from brine," said Dave Clary, Albemarle's chief sustainability officer. "Our lithium recovery technology is an extension of our technological know-how into a very attractive end market."
"Over 70% of the U.S. demand for lithium is currently met by imports," said Sharon McGee, VP Performance Chemicals Division. "There is certainly a need for more domestic production with the growing market demand and Albemarle is encouraged that we will be able to meet that need."
Albemarle's Magnolia South plant is fed by a network of brine production wells in Columbia and Union counties. The company is one of Columbia County's largest employers.
Lithium carbonate is a major industrial chemical used in numerous applications, including glassmaking and glazes, adding a red flame to fireworks, and as an ingredient of concrete. In medicine, it is used to treat advanced cases of bipolar disorder. Lithium carbonate is also being explored as a possible treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, sometimes called "Lou Gehrig's disease").
According to press reports, lithium carbonate production comes from "hard rock" mining or is extracted from saltwater brines. Hard-rock lithium is abundant in nations such as Argentina, Bolivia, Australia and China. There is an effort being made to develop hard-rock lithium mining in Nevada. But saltwater brine production is preferred because it is more cost-efficient. The Atacama Desert in Chile has become the biggest source of lithium carbonate from brine. Bolivia is also developing brine production.
Lithium carbonate is not sold as a commodity on the open market, so there is no reliable information about price. But some reports indicate that is sells for about $6,500 a ton.