HOUSTON – As more and more electric vehicles hit the road, the challenge of building all those batteries depends on resources from remote parts of the world.
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The essential component of rechargeable batteries, from cars to phones, is lithium. Much of the metal comes from South America and Australia, while China dominates the global lithium-ion battery supply chain. Now, a University of Houston researcher is at the forefront of finding some of those supplies from an unlikely source.
Professor UH Kyung Jae Lee is a petroleum engineer who has discovered that there is a curious link between the country’s hydraulic fracturing boom, which helped pave the way for the country’s energy independence, and the growing fascination with electric vehicles.
“I believe this will be a game-changer,” she said.
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Shale oil is released by injecting a fluid into the ground, to break up the rock and release the trapped oil. The wastewater, known as shale brine, is usually disposed of, treated or reused.
Professor Lee wanted to use his oil expertise to look to the future.
“There’s a part that only petroleum engineers can do for the clean energy transition, so I came up with the idea of processing lithium from shale brines,” she said.
It involves a lot of science, but during production tests in the shale fields of Pennsylvania, Lee and an industrial partner process and extract lithium from tens of thousands of barrels of shale brine daily.
Expectations are that the process could produce 4,200 tonnes of vital metal each year; more than double the current needs of the United States, as the fossil fuel industry could help fuel a transition to renewable energy.
“It’s quite ironic,” Prof Lee said, “but it’s really promising for this country.”
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While there’s still a challenge to upgrade the grid enough to charge all those batteries, the company could be a big step in finding the raw resources to build them.
Dr. Lee says there is a plan to expand the project, to see if there is lithium that can be mined from other shale deposits, like the vast ones we have here in Texas.