Much of our everyday life is powered through lithium-ion batteries, including cell phones, laptops, power tools, and vacuum cleaners. To us, they make things more portable, are lighter, slimmer, rechargeable, and last decently longer than their counterpart batteries made of nickel-cadmium. In short, they make things more convenient. Many governments around the globe see lithium as the new “Gold Rush.” Furthermore, they view it as a crucial resource for fighting climate change.
President Trump stated that it, along with a few other resources, is vital to our national and economic security. To science, lithium is the answer to climate change. Scientists explain how lithium humankind can use this material to fight climate change.
What is lithium?
Some of us know lithium as the medication to treat bipolar disorder. Lithium carbonite is one of the oldest medicines that doctors prescribe for bipolar disorder. A different component of lithium is what we use to power many of our standard devices.
Lithium-ion has competed with nickel-cadmium batteries since the 1990s. Lithium-ion is proving to be more beneficial for the future of climate change. Its energy density is twice that of nickel-cadmium, and it discharges its energy at half the amount. Yet, its life length can be inconsistent. Some last a year where others last up to 5 years. That is an issue that manufacturers have been working on and are making good strides. Storage temperatures have proven to play a factor. Lithium is best stored in colder environments and should always maintain a 40% charge even when not in use for sustainability.
It also is very sensitive to heat. As a result, all lithium-ion batteries have a protection circuit to limit its voltage output to prevent overheating or exploding. For this reason, lithium has travel or transporting limitations. Above a particular strength, it requires specific safety regulations to transport.
There is another form of lithium used, but it fails, so far, to produce enough energy to be overall beneficial. This is a lithium polymer. It is wafer-thin, and rather than creating a charge, it allows for ions to transfer. This version is used primarily in the strips of our credit and debit cards, identification cards, security cards, and such.
Where is lithium found, and how do we extract it?
Lithium is found in a small percentage of the earth’s crust. While it makes up a small percentage, it is relatively abundant but can be costly or difficult to mine. Oddly enough, lithium prefers to be in the water, so it tends to travel within the earth’s crust, following the groundwater.
Certain areas around the globe contain more lithium than others. For instance, there is a desert basin that is located in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. And, volcanic rock in Australia, the United States, and Canada and have clays comprised of lithium.
Lithium occurs naturally when volcanic rock mixes with a lot of water and high heat. The movement of tectonic plates under the earth’s surface stirs the mixture together. There are three varieties of lithium which serve as the source; clays, brine, and pegmatites, or volcanic rock.
Pegmatites are the result of multiple, incompatible minerals converging as magma from volcanoes slowly cools. Since the minerals are incompatible, they resist forming together to create one crystal for as long as possible. Eventually, certain minerals do join together, forming crystals and separate from the magma. Lithium prefers to be in a liquid. Therefore, it remains in the magma until it concentrates and is locked into the cooling and hardening magma.
Before the 1990s, this was the primary source of lithium despite it being a costly process.
If you cook, you know of brine as a saltwater concentration. Researchers discovered in the 1990s that lithium creates a brine as well. Due to its preference for being in a liquid, there are naturally made brine deposits of lithium in groundwater. The largest current source is the Lithium triangle of Argentine, Chile, and Bolivia.
It is located within the salt flats that exist there in the Andes mountains. Obtaining it is relatively easy in that they pump out the water into a large area and allow the water to evaporate. After the water has evaporated, miners add certain minerals to separate the salt from the lithium. Currently, this is the most significant source of lithium.
Clay is essentially hardened mud. In the quest for lithium, we are searching for locations in which a volcano had existed, deposited pegmatites, and groundwater is currently washing over these rocks. That groundwater, now enriched with lithium, flows to a larger water source, like a lake where it then deposits the lithium.
Understanding this process makes The United States a prime area for such deposits. Our continent is rich with old volcanoes and lake beds.
The downside to this process is that it requires open mining and additional extraction of the lithium to separate it from other minerals. Multiple companies are working on finding a cost-effective manner in which do this.