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AAPG Rocky Mountain Section Meeting

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Mineral Resource - Lithium - Recovery from Naturally Occurring Permian Basin Waste Water


In 1976 the USGS convened a symposium on “Lithium Resources and Requirements by the Year 2000”. This symposium identified oil field waste water as a probable source of recoverable lithium. We are here outlining an exploratory program for the recovery of lithium and other metals from the waste water produced as a secondary product of crude oil and natural gas recovery in the Permian Basin of west Texas and southeast New Mexico. The cumulative crude oil production from the Permian Basin is in excess of 40 billion barrels. Through most of that history the associated water cut has been about 90%. If the dissolved lithium content (an unknown quantity) averages 100 ppm, there would have been a potential recovery of 6.4 million metric tons of Li2CO3 from this water. Using a current production of about 3.5 million BOPD and 80% water cut, that would be a potential daily recovery of 787 metric tons of Li2CO3, which at currents prices is about $13 million/day. Saller and Steuber (2018) have investigated the origin of Permian Basin interstitial waters and have concluded that the waters are from one of three origins: evaporation of seawater during the Permian; recharge of meteoric water in the New Mexico mountains; recharged meteoric water with dissolution and/or precipitation of rock components and mixture with evaporitic water. Permian Basin waters have a composition which varies greatly, but some of these waters contain 350,000 ppm TDS, and their dissolved metals are largely unknown. Calcium, sodium, and magnesium are present in large concentrations. Confirmed in some analyses are barium, boron, cadmium, cobalt, lithium, potassium, rubidium and strontium. Other potentially recoverable metals whose presence in Permian Basin waters is unknown are beryllium, copper, molybdenum, nickel, silver, thorium and uranium. Lithium mining in the past has been mostly by way of the hard-rock mining of spodumene (which contains lithium) and the evaporative precipitation of LiCl and Li2CO3 from brines. Recent advances in membrane technology have successfully recovered lithium from brines without the need for the broad footprint of an evaporative pan. The exploration for these metals requires a sampling of waters over a broad geography in the Permian Basin, and at a broad spectrum of strata, with analysis by way of atomic emission spectrometry.