Could the waste from North Dakota’s oil industry help to power electric cars?


Brine, or produced water in industry lingo, has long posed one of the North Dakota oil industry’s biggest waste problems. In most cases, it goes back into the earth, down disposal wells or as the fluid needed for fracking.

Other times, it spills, polluting streams and rendering agricultural land infertile.

But a Williston-based company is pitching North Dakota’s produced water problem as an untapped and possibly lucrative resource, with an ambition that they say could one day help the state transition from powering the country’s gas-guzzling cars and trucks towards its growing fleet of electric vehicles.

“We don’t only want to solve a problem for the current oil and gas industry,” said Steve Kemp, a Williams County commissioner and founder of the company Wellspring Hydro. “We want to marry current oil and gas to renewables.”

The key to that idea is in the relatively rare element lithium, which is increasingly coveted as a vital ingredient for emerging battery technology — needed to power electric vehicles and to help sustain intermittent energy sources like wind and solar on the power grid. It’s also a trace component of the Bakken’s salty brine.

Wellspring Hydro, which earlier this month took home a $1 million grant from a recently formed state board aimed at cleaning up North Dakota fossil fuel production, is licensing lithium extraction technology from another company and aims to begin mining produced water for the element as soon as they complete construction of $200 million plant in Williams County, slated for 2024.

Kemp said that by his company’s readings, lithium accounts for around 50 parts per million of Bakken produced water, which he said would be enough to meet nearly a third of today’s global lithium demand.

Still, a path to substantial lithium output in North Dakota may be quite a bit longer, even if the guys at Wellspring Hydro can find a profitable means of extracting the element.

Wellspring Hydro is looking to process between 10,000 and 15,000 barrels of produced water a day, a quantity that company CEO Mark Watson acknowledged amounts to “a little bit of a drop in the bucket” compared to the over 1.5 million barrels of produced water drawn up on daily in the North Dakota oil fields.

The trace lithium quantities also can’t be extracted from North Dakota brine economically on its own, Watson said.

Instead, Wellspring Hydro is looking to use an evaporative process to isolate the mixture’s high salt concentration and manufacture separate products like hydrochloric acid, caustic soda and calcium chloride. Those three compounds offer a profitable set-up for Wellspring Hydro, Watson said, since they could be sold back to North Dakota buyers for a variety of uses ranging from a chemical agent for oil drilling, to an input for the carbon capture processes being pursued by a several North Dakota energy companies, to an environmentally friendly suppressant for dust pollution on the state’s tens of thousands of miles of dirt roads.

Even so, Kemp said he and his Wellspring Hydro team “have eyes on a bigger target.”

By evaporating off much of the produced water and selling other extracted products back to North Dakota buyers, the costs of extracting lithium becomes much more feasible, Kemp explained.

Globally, the race for efficient and expandable lithium extraction processes is already well underway.

Right now, China controls the largest share of both the world’s raw materials and manufacturing infrastructure for lithium-ion batteries, according to an October report by the energy research group BloombergNEF, while the research space is getting more and more crowded in the United States.

In some lithium-rich parts of the world, sprawling and time-intensive evaporative brine ponds have stoked environmental and human rights concerns, some of which groups like Amnesty International have argued “could undermine their green potential.”

While Watson declined to provide specifics on the exact lithium extraction technology that his company is licensing, he said that the environmental footprint of their operation would be much smaller than for the mining methods used in some other parts of the world. And though Wellspring Hydro would still end up with produced water waste that would have to be injected down oil field disposal wells, Kemp noted that about 60% of the brine they take in would be erased, since a large volume would be filtered off and evaporated as steam.

Wellspring Hydro’s ambitions for produced water have also stuck out to one of North Dakota’s leading environmental groups, the Dakota Resource Council, which keeps tabs on the handling of produced water waste in the oil fields.

Scott Skokos, executive director for the Dakota Resource Council, said he thinks Wellspring Hydro’s aims could mitigate a notorious oil field waste problem while also helping to prepare North Dakota for a changing energy world.

If we’re going to continue to have this oil field waste, “we might as well do something with it that’s positive,” Skokos said. And “if they can get to that aspirational goal (of extracting lithium), it’s literally a transitional technology,” he added.

Lithium prices more than doubled between May and November of this year, according to a global mineral markets research firm, and battery demand is expected to keep climbing in the coming years.

Kemp predicted that North Dakota will keep pumping oil and gas for many more years, but he said he sees his project as a way to help his home region tap into a rapidly emerging market at the same time.

“I want to keep North Dakota relevant in the next energy boom,” he said.

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.



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