Watch CBS News

Researchers in Pittsburgh discover large source of lithium in Pennsylvania

Pitt researches discover large source of lithium in Pennsylvania
Pitt researches discover large source of lithium in Pennsylvania 02:30

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found a goldmine of lithium in Pennsylvania.

The discovery suggests that up to 40 percent of the lithium used in the United States could come from the wastewater from Marcellus Shale gas wells in the Keystone State.

"This is lithium concentrations that already exist at the surface in some capacity in Pennsylvania, and we found that there was sufficient lithium in the waters to supply somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the current U.S. national demand," said Justin Mackey, research scientist the National Energy Technology Laboratory and PhD student at Pitt.

Mackey has been working on this study for years. He and his mentor Daniel Bain, associate professor of Pitt's Geology and Environmental Sciences, analyzed Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection compliance data and published their findings in Scientific Reports, a journal. 

Mackey said the lithium is in waste that is already being handled.

"If you can extract value out of materials, and specifically lithium from this, then you reduce the cost of remediating and handling this waste," he said.

They haven't looked into how much lithium is in wastewater in neighboring states like Ohio and West Virginia.

"That number could be a lot larger, so there's an economic boom for the region as well," Mackey said.

What is lithium used for?

Lithium is essential for the production of technology we use every day, including smartphones and laptops, but it comes from across the globe like China and Chile.

The United States Geological Survey lists lithium as a critical mineral. Mackey said that designation means the U.S. government wants all lithium to be produced domestically by 2030, and this discovery could lead to Pennsylvania fueling domestic production.

There are facilities in Arkansas that are starting lithium mining operations, but Mackey said this is different in Pennsylvania.

"We've actually found that the Marcellus produced water has as high lithium concentrations as both brine mining operations in Arkansas and in Chile," he said.

"The attractive nature of this type of resource, it being water, is that you can start to apply some newer technologies like direct lithium extraction methods, where you're just focusing on the lithium and keeping everything else in solution," he added.

While fracking can be a controversial topic, he hopes this becomes part of the conversation. 

"I do hope that it sheds light on creative remediation and reuse of these fluids. There's a lot of materials that are embodied in the water," Mackey said.

Mackey said they're already looking at lithium compositions in other formations, as well as expanding their analysis to other produced waters and looking at the environmental assessments for direct lithium extraction operations.

"We want a domestic source of lithium to decarbonize the American economy that is both safe, reliable and environmentally friendly," Mackey said.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.