It appears that fracking is the gift that keeps on giving.
News radio 1200 WOAI reports chemists at the University of Texas are working on a way to extract lithium, which is critical for use in cell phone batteries and in the batteries of electric cars, from the waste water of fracking wells.
"What we're talking about would be a process that would be continuous, and would recover lithium from this waste water on an ongoing basis," Benny Freeman, the chemist who is leading the effort, told 1200 WOAI news.
The explosion of smart phones with their lithium ion batteries, and the rise of electric vehicles has created a demand for lithium which has far outpaced our ability to recover new sources of the element.
But Freeman and his associates determined that the waste water from fracking wells is rich in lithium, and they are developing a membrane which can separate the lithium from the rest of the waste water with amazing efficiency.
"Out of a single average well, one might produce enough lithium in a week for more than a million smart phones, or hundreds of electric vehicles," he said.
He says wells both in the Eagle Ford and the Barnett Shale fields in north Texas have proven to be rich in lithium.
He says this will increase the value of the fracking wells for the landowners and for the well operators, and make oil production using fracking cost efficient at lower oil prices.
Currently, when global oil prices slip below $55 a barrel, fracking becomes unprofitable and many wells have to shut down. Since the lithium can also be sold, that will mean those wells can stay open during global oil price drops.
And there is another benefit as well. Freeman says the membranes which are being tested to extract the lithium from fracking water are also proving in early tests to be effective in removing salt from brackish water.
That could lead to desalination procedures which are far less expensive than those being used today.