Lithium Clays as a Source of Lithium and a Buffer for Lithium Concentration in Brines

Science Center Objects

We are collaborating with academic and industry geologists to develop a predictive model for lithium partitioning between lithium-bearing clays and lithium brines. We are conducting laboratory experiments to measure lithium partitioning between clays and brines. Experimental results will be compared with real-world data to learn whether this model may be used as an exploration tool for predicting lithium concentrations in brines associated with lithium-bearing sediments.

hand holding cell phone and minerals

Cell phone and the minerals used for components in mobile devices.

(Public domain.)

Esmeralda Formation, NV

Lithium bearing clay from the Esmeralda Formation, Clayton Valley, Nevada.

(Credit: Lisa Stillings, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)

Science Issue and Relevance 

Lithium (Li) is currently in high demand due to its use in batteries for electronic devices, particularly laptop computers, cell phones, and electric and hybrid vehicles. Spodumene and subsurface brines are the primary sources of lithium used in cathodes of lithium-ion batteries. The USGS is interested in lithium because it is an energy critical element with great promise in new technologies, in addition to its current uses. While USGS has published mineral deposit models for lithium brines and lithium clays, these general conceptual models did not include 1) the recognition and description of the co-occurrence and potential interaction between lithium clays and brines within continental basins, and 2) an explanation of why the type of clay and the structural position of lithium within the clay mineral will affect industry's ability to economically extract lithium from clay.

Methodology for Addressing the Issue

We are conducting a laboratory project designed to measure the chemical partitioning of lithium between lithium-bearing clays and lithium-brine solutions. Our research hypothesis is that the partitioning of lithium between basin sediments and pore water brines will be governed by the chemical equilibrium reactions of cation exchange and mineral solubility. Our research goal is to predict the equilibrium concentration of lithium in brine pore water as a function of lithium concentration in clay. Ours is a 2-pronged research approach: first we will conduct laboratory experiments designed to measure the partitioning of lithium between lithium-bearing clay and brine solutions when the system is at equilibrium and also during mineral dissolution and cation exchange reactions. Second, we will test our experimental models with measured data for lithium partitioning between basin sediments and brines, which we collect from the scientific literature and our colleagues and collaborators in the lithium exploration industry. Our final product will be predictive equations and graphs, for estimating lithium concentration in brine pore waters, given lithium concentration in clays. It is anticipated that a partitioning model can be an exploration tool for lithium brine deposits and used to estimate the lithium concentration in a brine from sediment analysis.