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ExxonMobil branches into lithium mining

Gas and oil giant comes full circle with its li-ion battery history Metal Tech News - May 31, 2023

In 2019, Exxon chemist Stanley Whittingham won the Nobel Prize for developing an early iteration of the lithium-ion battery while working at ExxonMobil's Clinton, New Jersey, corporate research lab back in 1973. Exxon even began a short run of manufacturing them in 1976, with early applications including camcorders, laptops, and cell phones.

In 1972, the consensus among scientists was that we'd run out of oil in 50 years and had better find new technologies by the year 2000, but demand for the batteries was subpar and so the technology was sold off to other companies.

"The market (for batteries) just wasn't going to be big enough. Our invention was just too early," Whittingham said in an interview for "Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car" by author Charles J. Murray.

In 1998, Nissan put a lithium-ion battery into their limited-edition Altra EV, other automakers eventually followed, and the lithium-ion battery market is now valued at almost $60 billion and growing.

As one of the world's largest producers of petroleum-based products, the oil giant has circled back half a century later with a purchase of drilling rights from the Oklahoma-based exploration company Galvanic Energy for a 120,000-acre swath of lithium-rich land in southern Arkansas.

The $100 million investment – considered small for a company of Exxon's size compared to their $56 billion profit last year – is estimated to contain the highest average concentration of any lithium brine reservoir in North America, enough to supply 50 million electric vehicles.

If the Arkansas region proves as profitable as predicted, the company is likely to further expand its mining operations.

This purchase indicates more oil companies are bracing for the inevitable as the global transportation market increasingly replaces gas-powered cars and trucks with EVs.

BP and Shell have gone the route of investing in renewable energy, while Occidental Petroleum and Exxon are putting money toward resource extraction, especially the key EV battery component lithium.

In its latest Outlook for Energy report, Exxon projects that fuel demand will peak around 2025. The report also indicates that by 2050 EVs are expected to account for more than half of all new car sales.

ExxonMobil is also reported to be involved in another lithium project through its subsidiary Imperial Oil, Canada's largest petroleum refiner and major producer of crude oil, fuel and petrochemical products.

Imperial, along with metals company E3 Lithium announced a collaboration last year to advance a lithium-extraction pilot at the Leduc oil and gas field in in Alberta, Canada.

The partnership is exploring the redevelopment of the historic oil field into a potential source of lithium with potential for commercial development of battery-grade products for Canada's growing critical minerals industry.

Many other oil companies are still maintaining fossil fuel production and have opted on reducing emissions through technologies like carbon capture and storage solutions.

Lines are being drawn to one camp or the other in the coming years as it becomes more apparent that Big Oil will either need to join the green energy transition or go the way of the dinosaurs.


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