Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum, Equinor, Imperiale… more and more oil companies are interested in lithium production. Like car manufacturers, “they realize that we won’t be able to keep up,” explains Michel Jebrak, co-author of the book Objectif lithium, published by Éditions MultiMondes.
According to several studies, hybrid and electric vehicles will account for more than 40% of the car market by 2050, which means that lithium needs will be considerable, even if non-lithium battery technologies are developed.
Exxon Mobil predicts that demand for fuel will peak in 2025 before declining, hence its $100 million investment to acquire a field with promising lithium reserves in southern Arkansas. Another recent investment is that of the Imperiale oil company, which has partnered with E3 lithium for a pilot extraction project in an Alberta oil field.
Technological advances and attractive prices
These reversals are facilitated by current lithium prices, which, although down from their peak last fall, are still very high. With current prices, deposits such as geothermal brines or oil brines, where lithium is extracted in a liquid state instead of by evaporation, are more profitable than a few years ago.
And although petroleum brines contain between 10 and 100 times less lithium than traditional deposits in Andean salt lakes, they are still interesting given the progress made in membrane filtration technologies, explains Michel Jebrak.
Know how to recycle
The extraction of lithium from the water produced by oil prospecting is also an almost “natural” outlet for companies with experience in pumping. But, for the moment, it is not a change in the strategy of these oil groups, but rather an adaptation to the needs of the market in the medium term.
If big oil groups hope to become lithium bigs in the future, they will have to invest much more than they do today.