Home / Chroniques / Geothermal lithium: a resource for the future?
Sol de Manana geysers and geothermal area in the Andean Plateau in Bolivia
π Industry π Energy

Geothermal lithium: a resource for the future?

Yannick Peysson
Yannick Peysson
R&D Program Manager at IFPEN
Ghislain Trullenque
Geothermal researcher at Institut polytechnique UniLaSalle and scientific coordinator of the MEET project
Arnaud Baudot
Head of R&D Strategic Metals for Sustainable Mobility at IFPEN
Key takeaways
  • Lithium is an essential resource for the ecological transition, but today no European country exploits it industrially.
  • Paradoxically, the continent is home to a natural lithium reserve (nearly 5 million tonnes) that it does not exploit.
  • In France, a type of reserve never yet exploited in the world as an industrial level exists – lithium from geothermal waters.
  • It is a strategic resource with many benefits: ready to use, renewable with lower environmental impact.
  • To extract lithium from these deep waters, several technologies are being developed and tested in France and Europe.
  • However, while the technologies are progressing, no industrial exploitation exists today.

Essen­tial to the ener­gy tran­si­tion, lithi­um is such a pre­cious resource that it has been dubbed “white gold”. In 2022, it was most­ly extract­ed by three coun­tries: Aus­tralia (47% of glob­al pro­duc­tion), Chile (26%) and Chi­na (17%)1. Two-thirds of the lithi­um pro­duced world­wide is then processed in Chi­na. Lithi­um is a met­al con­sid­ered crit­i­cal by the Euro­pean Union: the clean ener­gy sec­tor – in par­tic­u­lar lithi­um-ion bat­ter­ies in elec­tric vehi­cles – is very depen­dent on this raw mate­r­i­al, although it is main­ly imported. 

To date, no Euro­pean coun­try exploits lithi­um indus­tri­al­ly. Resources are esti­mat­ed at about 5 mil­lion tonnes, or 6.9% of the world’s resources2. Also, France has a reserve nev­er exploit­ed indus­tri­al­ly before in the world – lithi­um nat­u­ral­ly present in geot­her­mal waters.

Where does the lithi­um from our bat­ter­ies come from?

World­wide, two modes of lithi­um pro­duc­tion are used. In Aus­tralia, for exam­ple, lithi­um is recov­ered by min­ing in lithi­um-rich rocks, spo­dumene peg­matites. It is found else­where in the world in gran­ites or clays. Lithi­um can also be recov­ered from brines – salt water – nat­u­ral­ly rich in dis­solved lithi­um. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly the case in Chile, where salt lakes called salars are exploit­ed. The pro­duc­tion resem­bles that of salt: water is trans­ferred to salt marsh­es until evap­o­ra­tion. Physic­o­chem­i­cal process­es are then used to pro­duce lithi­um car­bon­ate from these con­cen­trat­ed brines.

In a geot­her­mal pow­er plant, nat­u­ral­ly hot ground­wa­ter is pumped, ener­gy is recov­ered – to pro­vide heat or elec­tric­i­ty – and water is final­ly re-inject­ed. A high amount of lithi­um has been detect­ed in some geot­her­mal reserves. In east­ern France, the Soultz-sous-Forêts pow­er plant exploits salt­wa­ter con­tain­ing 200 mg of lithi­um in each litre of water3. “Geot­her­mal lithi­um is in an active sys­tem, where geot­her­mal waters cir­cu­late and recharge with lithi­um,” said Ghis­lain Trul­lenque. “The dif­fer­ence with con­ven­tion­al min­ing is fun­da­men­tal: it relies on old geot­her­mal sys­tems that are now far from the heat source, and are there­fore fos­sil reser­voirs that can­not be recharged.”

To recov­er lithi­um from deep warm water, sev­er­al inno­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies cur­rent­ly exist. In France, the min­ing group Eram­et and IPF Ener­gies nou­velles have devel­oped a tech­nol­o­gy for direct lithi­um extrac­tion since the 2010s. It has since been opti­mised for geot­her­mal lithi­um recov­ery as part of the EuGeli research project. “A lamel­lar mate­r­i­al made of alu­minum hydrox­ide allows to adsorb [fix on the sur­face] lithi­um chlo­ride”, explains Arnaud Bau­dot. Thanks to the pro­to­type, the first kilo­grams of Euro­pean lithi­um from geot­her­mal water were pro­duced4. Since the end of 2023, an extrac­tion pilot has been installed at the Rit­ter­shof­fen geot­her­mal pow­er plant to test the effi­cien­cy of the process in real conditions.

“Lithi­um from these process­es has the qual­i­ty required for the man­u­fac­ture of bat­ter­ies”, stress­es Arnaud Bau­dot. In Ger­many, Vul­can Ener­gy is test­ing a sim­i­lar tech­nol­o­gy. Anoth­er exist­ing process is ion exchange tech­nol­o­gy, which acts as a fil­ter with­in which lithi­um-rich water cir­cu­lates. The French com­pa­ny Geolith is test­ing this process on a semi-indus­tri­al scale in Corn­wall, UK. “A few oth­er ini­tia­tives exist in Europe but also in the Unit­ed States,” adds Bau­dot. “France is very advanced in the field thanks to an ecosys­tem of inno­v­a­tive com­pa­nies very active in the field of lithi­um min­ing and refining.”

How­ev­er, even though tech­nolo­gies progress, no indus­tri­al exploita­tion exists today. “Geot­her­mal lithi­um has many advan­tages,” says Yan­nick Peysson. “One of them is being ready to use.” No need to send the raw mate­r­i­al to Chi­na for refin­ing, as is the case today for lithi­um extract­ed from brines or rocks. Anoth­er ben­e­fit is less envi­ron­men­tal impact. “It is enough to add a set of mod­ules on the exist­ing geot­her­mal pow­er plants,” points out Ghis­lain Trul­lenque. “And even if a new pow­er plant is to be installed, the sur­face impact is con­sid­er­ably less than con­ven­tion­al oper­a­tions, where mil­lions of cubic meters of rock are exca­vat­ed, and large evap­o­ra­tion ponds cre­at­ed. All the pumped water – unfit for con­sump­tion – is inject­ed back to its orig­i­nal lev­el to allow it to recharge to lithi­um.” Renew­able geot­her­mal ener­gy is also being con­sid­ered as the main ener­gy source for lithi­um sur­face treat­ments. Arnaud Bau­dot adds: “The exploita­tion of lithi­um in evap­o­ra­tion ponds con­sumes 250–450 m35 of water per tonne of lithi­um pro­duced. This fig­ure is 150 m3 for rocks and falls to a few dozen m3 for geot­her­mal sources.”

A strategic resource with many advantages

With the needs increas­ing con­sid­er­ably, geot­her­mal lithi­um has become a strate­gic resource. Lithi­um con­sump­tion in the ener­gy sec­tor tripled between 2017 and 2022, main­ly due to the explo­sion in elec­tric vehi­cle sales. The Inter­na­tion­al Ener­gy Agency (IEA) esti­mates that demand will increase 3.5‑fold by 2030 and 9.5‑fold by 2050 if states meet their announced cli­mate com­mit­ments. Do we have enough geot­her­mal lithi­um resources? Eram­et aims to pro­duce enough lithi­um to pro­duce 250,000 elec­tric vehi­cle bat­ter­ies per year. “There is no com­plete glob­al inven­to­ry, and a min­i­mum lithi­um con­cen­tra­tion must be con­sid­ered for the oper­a­tion to be prof­itable,” says Yan­nick Peysson. “Today, this min­i­mum con­cen­tra­tion is con­sid­ered to be about 100 mg per litre of water.” A par­tial assess­ment of 48 regions around the world sug­gests that geot­her­mal lithi­um resources are of the same order of mag­ni­tude as salt flats and rocks6.

“The big ques­tion of the moment – which sev­er­al research con­sor­tia are work­ing on – is whether the exploit­ed waters can recharge suf­fi­cient­ly quick­ly in lithi­um,” points out Yan­nick Peysson. As lithi­um is exploit­ed, the under­ground water tank will become deplet­ed in lithi­um. This imbal­ance will cause an alter­ation of the rock in which these geot­her­mal waters cir­cu­late, which could then be enriched again with lithi­um. “The oper­a­tion of these active sys­tems offers the unprece­dent­ed poten­tial of a lithi­um-recharg­ing tank,” con­cludes Ghis­lain Trul­lenque. “ It is essen­tial to bet­ter char­ac­ter­ize these recharge process­es in order to estab­lish sus­tain­able and sus­tain­able exploita­tion of these reservoirs.”

Anaïs Marechal
1IEA (2023), Crit­i­cal Min­er­als Mar­ket Review 2023, IEA, Paris https://​www​.iea​.org/​r​e​p​o​r​t​s​/​c​r​i​t​i​c​a​l​-​m​i​n​e​r​a​l​s​-​m​a​r​k​e​t​-​r​e​v​i​e​w​-2023, Licence: CC BY 4.0
2D’après le BRGM cité dans : Min­istère de la tran­si­tion écologique, La mobil­ité bas-car­bone, Choix tech­nologiques, enjeux matières et oppor­tu­nités indus­trielles, édité par Com­mis­sari­at général au développe­ment durable, févri­er 2022.
4Site inter­net con­sulté le 14/03/2024 : https://​www​.brgm​.fr/​f​r​/​r​e​f​e​r​e​n​c​e​-​p​r​o​j​e​t​-​a​c​h​e​v​e​/​e​u​g​e​l​i​-​e​x​t​r​a​c​t​i​o​n​-​l​i​t​h​i​u​m​-​p​a​r​t​i​r​-​s​a​u​m​u​r​e​-​g​e​o​t​h​e​r​m​a​l​e​-​e​urope
5IEA (2023), Crit­i­cal Min­er­als Data Explor­er, IEA, Paris https://​www​.iea​.org/​d​a​t​a​-​a​n​d​-​s​t​a​t​i​s​t​i​c​s​/​d​a​t​a​-​t​o​o​l​s​/​c​r​i​t​i​c​a​l​-​m​i​n​e​r​a​l​s​-​d​a​t​a​-​e​x​p​lorere
6Dugamin, E.J.M., Richard, A., Cathe­lin­eau, M. et al. Ground­wa­ter in sed­i­men­ta­ry basins as poten­tial lithi­um resource: a glob­al prospec­tive study. Sci Rep 11, 21091 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021–99912‑7

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter