RUNNING ON LITHIUM: Electric vehicles at a charging station.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday (paywall) that Exxon Mobil plans to build one of the world’s largest lithium processing facilities near Magnolia. The oil giant has purchased more than 100,000 acres in South Arkansas with plans to extract lithium, which is in high demand for batteries used in electric cars and other technologies, from salty underground water.

The processing facility aims to be able to produce up to 100,000 metric tons of lithium annually, or 15% of current global production, according to The Wall Street Journal, producing some 6,000 jobs and requiring more than 1,600 trucks.

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The saltwater brine from which the metal can be extracted is contained in the Smackover formation, a subterranean geological feature that runs through South Arkansas and neighboring states. If companies such as Exxon can successfully scale up production, the region is positioned to become a focal point for the industry.

The business arrangement behind the development is a little confusing. Last month, Reuters reported Exxon had agreed to develop 6,138 “lithium-rich acres in Arkansas” with Tetra Chemicals, which produces chemicals for water treatment and recycling. Tetra had announced the agreement with a company called Saltwerx, which sources told Reuters is an Exxon subsidiary. Exxon acquired Saltwerx when it bought 100,000 South Arkansas acres from a company called Galvanic Energy, the report said.

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Local officials, including Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann, expressed optimism about the possibility of a boom. Vann said the community needs to be preparing for population growth now instead of waiting until it’s too late. 

The Arkansas Advocate wrote about lithium exploration in South Arkansas in a two-part series earlier this year, noting an industry association projected demand for the metal to grow from 292,000 metric tons in 2020 to 2.5 million by 2030. The series addressed environmental concerns with lithium and bromine extraction and how one company operating in South Arkansas, Standard Lithium, proposes to use a “green” extraction method that differs from cruder methods that use open-pit mining and sulfuric acid.

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