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UW researchers find lithium in SW Wyoming

Bob Moen, Associated Press

In this photo provided by the University of Wyoming, a drilling rig operates in 2010 near Rock Springs in southwest Wyoming as part of a carbon dioxide storage project led by UW's Carbon Management Institute. Project researchers discovered lithium in the underground water at the site. Lithium is used in lithium batteries, which are widely used in cellphones, laptops and other electronics. The extent of the lithium deposit isn't known but officials say it could amount to up to 18 million tons, which officials say is significant and much more than what is available at the one U.S. lithium mine in operation. (AP Photo/University of Wyoming)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- University of Wyoming researchers have discovered a possibly large source of lithium near Rock Springs, but an expert on the material says whether it will lead to the second U.S. lithium mining operation depends on the market.

"The only way that a new source like this place in Wyoming, the only way it could succeed is if they're able to extract it very economically," Brian Jaskula, a lithium commodity specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said Thursday. "There's so much going on in the world of lithium right now. If all the other companies that are gearing up to produce, if they all come on line, there may not be need for a new source for lithium."

Officials say more study is needed to determine the amount of lithium in the Wyoming find and whether it can be extracted profitably.

Lithium is a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, which are found mainly in cellphones, laptops and other electronics. The lithium in southwest Wyoming was found while UW researchers were studying the idea of storing carbon dioxide underground in the Rock Springs Uplift, a geologic formation. The material was found in brine, or underground salty water, extracted by the researchers.

Ron Surdam, director of the UW Carbon Management Institute, said researchers estimate they found a deposit of about 228,000 tons in a 25-square-mile area. The uplift is about 2,000 square miles, meaning there could be up to 18 million tons of lithium, Surdam said.

"At today's price that's worth about half a trillion dollars," he said.

Jaskula said the United States has just one lithium mining operation, in Nevada. Most of the world's lithium reserves and mining are in South America. U.S. lithium production is "small potatoes" compared to Chile, Argentina and other countries, he said.

While there are many unknowns about the Wyoming find, Jaskula said it should draw interest from lithium producers.

FMC Corp., which mines soda ash in southwest Wyoming, is among the world leaders in lithium production.

FMC spokesman James Fitzwater said the company just heard about the find and that it was too soon to comment on it.

UW researchers suggest lithium mining could piggyback with a carbon sequestration operation since the brine must be pumped to the surface from the underground rock formation to extract the lithium. Removing the brine opens space to store CO2 in its place.

Surdam said there are economic advantages to the combined lithium-CO2 storage operation.

"You get paid to put the carbon in the subsurface and that'll pay for the wells to remove the lithium," Surdam said.

Soda ash is a key ingredient in lithium processing, and the FMC mine, which sells its soda ash to lithium producers around the world, is right in the backyard, he said.