Letters & Opinion

Geothermal Energy and Lithium Extraction

Roosevelt Isaac of Strata Engineering Consultants
By Roosevelt Isaac, Strata Engineering Consultants

The energy security of the countries of the Organization of the Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) namely, Saint Lucia, Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts/Nevis and Grenada is currently solely dependent on the importation of fossil fuel, e.g. diesel fuel for their sustenance. This high energy cost renders their economies to price volatility on the international market which drastically affects their long-term planning strategies for development.

As a result, the OECS countries have currently prioritized the development of geothermal energy as renewable energy in the region, with headquarters in Saint Lucia, in an effort to move away from the dependency on the importation of fossil fuel products. This requires a cost-effective approach and management of exploration risks in order to strengthen the energy capacity of the OECS countries over the long-term.

Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source derived from hot subsurface fluids (brines) which are continuously produced in volcanic rocks. These hot brines are extracted from the fractures in hard rock in the volcanoes through exploratory boreholes. Geothermal energy can be extracted from these hot brines and can be used to generate electricity and heat.

The OECS Commission should be made aware that geothermal hot brines can not only supply energy for electricity but also contain metal-rich minerals, including lithium carbonate and should be tested to determine available concentrated amounts.  In Germany, for example, the authorities are predicting that it is possible to extract thousands of tons of lithium every year. Lithium carbonate is an industrial chemical used in processing metal oxides and is used in the production of lithium batteries. It might be possible to extract large quantities of lithium annually (from) the hot geothermal brines. Lithium carbonate ions can be extracted from hot geothermal brines through chemical processing. Lithium carbonate is in great demand for electric vehicle battery manufacturing.

It has been estimated that two billion battery electric, plug-in hybrid and fuel-cell electric light-duty vehicles will be needed by 2050 to meet net-zero targets. Each lithium-ion battery pack in these vehicles contains about 8 kilograms of lithium and last year global lithium production was 100,000 tons. Lithium is also required for a wide range of other products, including mobile cell phones, laptops and energy-storage systems. Consequently, there are enormous demands for lithium production to be efficient, high-quality and fast. Similarly, it will be necessary to recycle the components of batteries that have reached the end of their useful service.

The OECS Commission should be made aware of the opportunity to produce geothermal energy not only as a renewable energy source for the Caribbean islands but also to explore the possible production of lithium to help meet the worldwide demand. The establishment of geothermal power plants to generate electricity can also be used for the extraction of lithium.

Following energy production, lithium can be separated and the remaining water will be fed back into the underground. The potential lithium extraction volume does not only depend on the geothermal water’s concentration, but also on the location-dependent flow rate and reservoir dimensions.

Potential locations in the OECS countries should be analyzed and various technologies assessed in terms of efficiency, applicability and integration in geothermal energy production. It is not only technology development or suitable locations that will decide on weather lithium will be extracted at the established geothermal power plants. Public support and acceptance will be required. Decision makers in politics and local industry in the OECS countries as well as the interested public need to consider opportunities and challenges.

As much value from the lithium production as possible should remain in the OECS countries and in the region where production is taking place. The real value that lithium production would bring to a region is in the construction of an Electric Vehicle (EV) battery factory that will provide jobs, development of roads, power, infrastructure, etc. and the economic uplift of the OECS countries.

It will be necessary initially to import temporary workers from overseas (eg. South Korea) to assist in the construction and temporary operation of the EV battery factory while training OECS personnel.

The switch from fossil fuels to electrically powered vehicles and renewable energy has dramatically increased the importance of battery technology. This, in turn, has created a major challenge for battery manufacturers and their supply chains. Consequently, there is a high demand for new technology that can help the quality and efficiency of production.

The OECS countries should seriously examine this opportunity to drastically improve their economies and the quality of life of their inhabitants since they have the natural volcanic geological setting.

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