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Lithium Innovation Summit joins Arkansas leaders with energy entrepreneurs

Governor Sarah Sanders addresses the crowd at the inaugural Lithium Technology Summit in Little Rock.
Nathan Treece
Little Rock Public Radio
Governor Sarah Sanders addresses the crowd at the inaugural Lithium Technology Summit in Little Rock on Thursday.

State leaders met with energy companies and entrepreneurs in Little Rock Thursday for the inaugural Lithium Innovation Summit, a two-day conference to discuss the role of lithium in energy transition and how Arkansas is strategically positioning itself in the sector.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald delivered opening remarks, focusing on a need to bring new energy infrastructure into Arkansas from overseas.

Sanders asserted her administration will be a friend to the burgeoning industry, saying, “We are taking an all-of-government approach on lithium.”

She also touted the state as a destination for families as well, adding, “Arkansas has one of the lowest costs of living in the country... we’ve cut taxes not once, but twice, to the tune of $3 million.”

Keynote speakers Bob Gaylen, CEO of Gaylen Energy, and Andy Miller, COO of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, spoke at length about the details of bringing lithium extraction to southeast Arkansas, and the factors that can make the industry successful.

Speaking of his work overseas, Gaylen identified four key reasons that positioned China as a success in lithium-ion battery production. Those include government support, private equity investments, personnel training, and designing machines that can better handle the production volume.

In November 2023, oil and gas company ExxonMobil announced plans to begin constructing lithium wells in south Arkansas, acquiring the rights to 120,000 gross acres of what is known as the Smackover formation, noting in a press release that the area is considered one of the most prolific lithium resources of its type in North America.

Gaylen hinted that building these lithium wells at the Smackover Formation could also bring manufacturers to the region.

“Wherever the lithium is, is where a lot of the manufacturers should be going. Because you want to put these materials as close to the site of where the raw materials are so you can produce them for a lower cost.” Gaylen said, “The shipping and transportation are extraordinarily expensive for a large quantity of materials.”

Addressing environmental concerns, Gaylen said it was an important aspect of lithium mining, saying one of the most impressive things about the current technology in Arkansas is that the lithium can be extracted from the brine without contaminating the environment.

The proposed ExxonMobil lithium wells will utilize an extraction process known as Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE.) According to an article published in the journal Nature in February 2023, DLE is a relatively new extraction method and says that environmental impacts might only be observable with long-term use.

DLE consumes both brine and freshwater resources in considerably less volume than other extraction techniques, but the journal notes that ecosystems in the vicinity of lithium deposits are often extremely fragile, and soil composition could be affected by decreasing water tables, and from leaching or drainage from accumulated waste, which could increase soil salinity.

Benchmark COO Andy Miller spoke at length about the role lithium will play in the future of global energy, saying that no matter where the energy market shifts, storage capacity will be the common denominator.

“The economics and efficiencies and how the future energy landscape shapes up will ultimately come down to our ability to supply energy storage to these industries.”

Miller said without new projects in the lithium industry, global markets will effectively be in a deficit each year going forward until changes are made. “Even if you take the rosiest picture of where that supply is going,” he added, “We'd still be facing a structural deficit in this industry by the late 2020s.”

He emphasized that the U.S. lithium brine market has potential on a global scale, and most speakers also touched on the desire to bring energy security back to U.S. shores.

The lithium technology summit ends Friday. ExxonMobil says first production is targeted for 2027 in the city of Magnolia.

Nathan Treece is a reporter and local host of NPR's Morning Edition for Little Rock Public Radio.
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