Lithium-ion batteries are all the rage. Hardly a day goes by that you don’t use them, hear about them, or see the word “lithium” on an electronic gadget or battery. Nearly every page of Green Energy Times has an advertisement, product, service, or policy that in one way or another relates to lithium-ion batteries or “lithium energy.”
But what is lithium?
Its past, present, and more important its future? Now commonly referred to as a “critical mineral” for a renewable energy future, lithium is in high demand and experiencing an intense geo-political fight for its acquisition. Lithium ion is the new gold standard for battery storage and, like gold, it is coveted. Those who have lithium have power, literally, and we like our renewable energy power.
Let’s take a closer look at lithium.
Lithium is an alkali metal and along with hydrogen and helium is one of the first “miracle elements” that came bursting out of nothing from the Big Bang. If you listen closely, you can hear lithium singing its praise, “I created myself. I invented myself. I’m special.” For all of lithium’s hubris, right now it’s special, so much so we’ve put it on a pedestal, and here’s why.
As an element, lithium holds the third spot on the periodic table. It’s also a trace mineral that can be found in water, beer, sodas, seaweed, and common foods such as potatoes. Lithium is in your body and you can even buy it at your local health food store as a supplement known as “lithium orotate,” which is supposed to help with mood stabilization and promote a sense of well-being. As a battery in your electric vehicle, it might also help with a sense of well-being in that it reduces range anxiety!
In higher concentrations lithium is used as a powerful psychiatric drug claimed to help with depression, suicidal tendencies, mania, and anxiety. Lithium, lithium carbonate, and lithium citrate are widely prescribed and have been used excessively, even with their known negative side effects. Lithium citrate was once even part of the mix of the popular soda 7-Up, which used to be called “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda.” So once upon a time you could drink a Coca-Cola laced with cocaine and then sooth your nerves with a 7-Up! No wonder we’re addicted to the stuff.
But most of us know lithium as the magical ingredient that powers our Smart Phones, laptops, off-grid batteries, EVs, electric bikes, calculators, and flashlights. More efficient and lightweight than the bulky batteries of the past, lithium-based batteries are mainstream, so much so that most consumer don’t even know they’re using them. Every supermarket around the globe that sells batteries most likely has lithium-ion batteries on their shelves.
Although a naturally occurring element, lithium accounts for only 0.002% of the earth’s crust and is in limited supply. I use the word “supply” intentionally here because “supply” implies an anthro-centric assumption that something naturally occurring in nature is there for the human taking. Well, take it we have, and we’re running out. Projections of the future availability of lithium vary wildly from “party over” by 2040 to “let’s party” for the next 340 years.
But no matter how much you mine it, extract it, or brine it, lithium is getting used up, fast, and we need to think beyond it if we are going to have a stable renewable energy future. Don’t be fooled by Elon Musk’s cherubic grin when he extolls the wonders of the new and exciting lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries that will keep the price of a Tesla stable and the range long. But if “range anxiety” is such a problem, then perhaps every new EV should come with a pharmacological supply of lithium to ease the worry—same range, less anxiety, it will be the new “win-win” of the renewable energy future!
Lithium, or Li, is the third lightest element in the universe and was discovered in 1817 by Swedish chemist Johan Arfvedson when he found it in a piece of volcanic stone and isolated it as a salt. He named it after the Greek word “lithos” for stone.
When Sony introduced the first lithium-ion battery in 1991, we thought it was the best thing since the invention of sliced bread. Before there were “Smart Phones” there were cell phones, and the first ones were bulky, pineapple-sized units due mainly to their nickel batteries. With lithium-ion batteries, big cell phones morphed into sleek smart phones and digital technology got super thin and light. Lithium has thus become our special friend.
What is most interesting about lithium as an atomic element is that it is highly reactive and readily loses an electron to form new bonds and, thus, a positive charge. This charge in turn allows electricity to flow easily; it’s as if lithium has an eagerness to bond and flow, and electricity loves to flow! Once a lithium battery is charged it can efficiently release current and the party is on.
Lithium is a truly amazing conductor of electricity, and it packs an electron punch like no other.
Lithium is also used in aluminum to make extra strong alloys, glass to help prevent it from breaking at high heats, and is even used on the International Space Station to help soak up the carbon dioxide breathed out by astronauts. It’s also readily available in the form of grease which makes for a lasting lubricant. Interesting stuff, for sure, and there’s even some in the potato-tomato frittata you had for lunch today.
What does the future of lithium look like? Can it be recycled and re-used? What happens when we run out? Do we have a plan for lithium alternatives? And what does the mining, extraction, brining, and processing of lithium do to the environment and the people it impacts? We’ll take a look at that in the next article.
Dan Antonioli is a green developer, licensed general building contractor, and permaculture designer based in Ithaca, NY. His company, Going Green, is available to assist in a wide variety of green building projects. Visit www.going-green.co.