Retrospective on Recent DOE-Funded Studies Concerning the Extraction of Rare Earth Elements & Lithium from Geothermal Brines
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Retrospective on Recent DOE-Funded Studies Concerning the Extraction of Rare Earth Elements & Lithium from Geothermal Brines

  • Author(s): Stringfellow, William
  • Dobson, Patrick
  • et al.

Rare earth elements (REE) and lithium are non-toxic metals that are considered critical materials due to their use in electronics, magnets, batteries, and a wide variety of industrial processes important for the economy and military preparedness. Demand for REE and lithium is increasing and these critical materials are imported, so identifying and exploiting domestic sources of REE and lithium is a national priority. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) has been in the forefront of sponsoring research investigating the potential recovery of REE, lithium, and other critical minerals from geothermal brines. It has been proposed that the future of geothermal energy should include “hybrid systems” that combine electricity generation with other revenue-generating activities, such as recovery of valuable and critical minerals, including REE and lithium. Two recent GTO funding opportunities have focused on the recovery of REE and other valuable minerals from geothermal brines. The research supported by the GTO’s mineral recovery program is focused on three areas: resource characterization, technology for the extraction of REE, and technology for the extraction of lithium (Tables 1 and 2). This report is a retrospective study examining the outcome of GTO’s two recent mineral recovery programs (DE-FOA-0001016 in FY 2014 and DE-FOA-0001376 in FY 2016). In this report, the knowledge, technology, and techniques that were developed by researchers funded by GTO are summarized and discussed. Four projects were funded to assess the concentrations and amounts of REE found in geothermal brines and oil field produced waters. The GTO-funded studies compiled publically available data on REE concentrations from brines and produced water from all over the USA. In addition, new samples were collected and characterized from major geothermal and hydrocarbon basins in the Western USA. The studies examined the relationship between lithology and REE concentrations and developed models examining the influence of geology on REE concentrations in produced brines. It was determined that REE are frequently found at higher concentrations in oil field produced water than geothermal brines, but that some geothermal areas had significant REE resources. Significant reservoirs of REE were identified in the Western USA. In some cases, concentrations of REE were more than 1000 times the concentrations found in seawater. Collectively, these studies represent a comprehensive picture of REE resources associated with geothermal and hydrocarbon systems in the USA. The studies did not examine lithium resources, but in some cases, lithium concentration data was collected. Data from these studies are housed in the Geothermal Data Repository (GDR) and represent a significant information resource and it is recommended that these data be further analyzed in a future study. Eight projects were funded to develop new technology for REE extraction from geothermal fluids. These projects investigated sorption as an approach for removal and recovery of REE from geothermal brines. The projects investigated cutting-edge technology for selective sorption of ions from complex solutions, including the application of metal-organic frameworks and biosorbent proteins. The REE sorption studies tested different combinations of metal-binding ligands and solid supports. The most promising metal-binding ligands for REE included phosphonic acid, thiol, and carboxylic acid functional groups. Ligands were attached or incorporated into a wide variety of solid supports. In most cases, attachment was via covalent bonding to organic resins, polymers, or silica-based supports. Most of the REE projects were conducted at a low technology readiness level (TRL) and showed promise, but direct comparison between technologies was not possible based on the available information. It is recommended that testing and reporting be standardized to the extent possible to facilitate comparisons between technologies. Two projects were directed at novel lithium extraction technology. Both projects investigated the use of inorganic sorbents, including manganese oxides. One study also examined the use of metal- ion imprinted polymers as selective ion-exchange resins for the separation of lithium and manganese from brines. Both approaches showed promise for the selective extraction of lithium from brines, including potentially geothermal brines. Results from these GTO studies indicated that selective REE and lithium extraction is possible, but interference from co-occurring solutes, such as calcium, magnesium, or heavy metals, will interfere with process efficiency and negatively impact process economics. Techno-economic analysis conducted as part of the resource and technology studies suggest extraction of REE from geothermal brines is unlikely to be economically viable, especially since non-geothermal produced waters frequently have higher REE concentrations. It is recommended that benchmarks for techno-economic analysis be established to the extent possible for future studies, to facilitate direct comparison of various technologies. Based on the collective results of this program, it appears that hybrid geothermal power would benefit more from recovery of lithium and other metals, rather than REE. It is recommended that future studies be conducted at a higher- TRL and that sorbents be tested against actual geothermal fluid samples. Prior higher-TRL efforts to extract metals from geothermal brines should be further evaluated for lessons learned.

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