ExxonMobil drills first lithium well in Arkansas’ Smackover formation

Nov. 14, 2023
Exxon Mobil Corp. started work on the company’s first phase of North America lithium production in southwest Arkansas.

Exxon Mobil Corp. started work on the company’s first phase of North America lithium production in southwest Arkansas.

The energy major said it is working with local and state officials to enable a scale-up of the lithium industry in the state and aims to become a leading supplier of lithium for use in electric vehicle (EV) batteries by 2030, according to a release Nov. 13.

The geology of southwest Arkansas, an area known to hold significant lithium deposits, is well understood through its history as an oil and natural gas producer, according to ExxonMobil. The company holds about 120,000 gross acres in the Smackover formation and is targeting first production in 2027.

ExxonMobil will use conventional oil and gas drilling methods to access lithium-rich saltwater from reservoirs about 10,000 ft underground, and then apply direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology to separate lithium from the saltwater, the company said. The lithium will then be converted onsite to battery-grade material and remaining saltwater reinjected into the underground reservoirs.

Overall, the DLE process produces fewer carbon emissions than hard rock mining and requires significantly less land, according to the company.

“DLE has gained increasing momentum in the Smackover due to multiple limitations on the ability to evaporate brine reservoirs,” said TD Cowen analysts in an investor’s note Nov. 14. “The application has limited commerciality outside of Livent [Corp.]'s longstanding absorption operations in Argentina though DLE has gained recent appeal for targeted recovery improvements and favorable environmental impacts to brine ecosystems vs. traditional evaporation methods,” the analysts continued.

ExxonMobil's lithium moves 

As for ExxonMobil’s participation in the space, the analysts said it suggests “leveraging proprietary techniques around water and solids management to economically produce lithium at scale. Projects tend to be bespoke to each reservoir and have ranged in capital intensity from $30,000-50,000/tonne of LCE [lithium carbonate equivalent] capacity.”

In its Nov. 13 release, ExxonMobil said it expects lithium demand to quadruple by 2030.

The company acquired its Smackover rights from Galvanic Energy in early 2023.  Oklahoma City-based Galvanic said the asset—which lies close to current and proposed EV and battery manufacturing infrastructure—is estimated to contain 4 million tons of lithium carbonate equivalent.

“With test wells yielding 290-520 mg/L lithium within our top tier area and the entire prospect averaging 325 mg/L lithium, this prospect is one of the most concentrated lithium brine reservoirs in North America,” said Brent Wilson, president and chief executive of Galvanic Energy, in November 2022.

Building on the deal with Galvanic, ExxonMobil entered into a partnership with Tetra Technologies Inc. to jointly develop 6,100 lithium-rich Smackover formation acres.

As part of its third-quarter report Oct. 30, Tetra Technologies’ president and chief executive officer Brady Murphy said it received “unanimous approval by the Arkansas Oil & Gas Commission (AOGC) of the 6,138-acre joint brine unit application, giving Tetra and our partner the rights to develop and produce the brine for bromine production and future lithium production once the lithium royalty is established by the AOGC.”

Additionally, he said, data gathering and sampling operations for a second test well yielded lithium measurements in the upper Smackover “as high as 646 mg/l,” 35% higher than the first test well reported in September 2022, “and bromine values of 5,890 mg/l, in line with the first test well.”

In its third-quarter earnings report, ExxonMobil called lithium production promising, and expectations are that the company could disclose more in its next Corporate Plan update Dec. 6.