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No Need to Worry About Lithium

An ocean full of lithium (Silas Baisch, Unsplash)

George Harvey

As Green Energy Times publishes about the things we need to save the planet, we often cover batteries. Whether they be for grid energy storage, household resilience, or electric vehicles, the need for batteries is real. And right now, much of that need is met by batteries containing lithium.

Often, we get scolded by people who tell us that there really isn’t enough lithium in the world to build all the batteries we need. We also get scolded for supporting an industry that exploits children who mine cobalt, which is claimed to be needed for lithium batteries.

The short answer to such criticisms is that (1) there is plenty of lithium, which is cheaply available and doesn’t require building mines, (2) we don’t need any cobalt to use lithium in batteries, (3) there are many ways of storing electricity that don’t use lithium at all, and (4) more technology is coming.

Let’s break that down to see the long answer.

1. There is plenty of lithium, and it can be found in numerous sources. Some currently exploited sources of lithium are open pit mines in Australia and China. But they are limited in what they can produce, and mining should not be necessary.

Lithium can be extracted from brine in some areas. A single source in the Salton Sea, in southern California, is judged to be able to supply all foreseeable needs for the United States for several decades, according to a news report published by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). The report, “Quantifying California’s Lithium Valley: Can It Power Our EV Revolution?” was published in February of 2022. (https://bit.ly/GET-lithium-1)

The lithium at the Salton Sea can be extracted at geothermal plants that were built to generate electricity. There are eleven such plants in the area. According to the LBNL paper, “The potential size of the lithium resource at the Salton Sea is staggering. Governor Gavin Newsom recently called California the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium,’ and the state established the Lithium Valley Commission last year to research and write a report on the opportunities.” And remember, this is just taking advantage of water already flowing through facilities that are already in place to produce renewable energy.

Does that sound like there is enough? In case it doesn’t there is more to the story. Lithium can be extracted from sea water very cheaply. And any country with a seacoast has a fair amount of that.

If my high school physics and chemistry teachers had been told how extracting lithium from seawater is done, they would probably have said it is impossible. The problem is that it is done essentially by filtering dissolved substances to separate them. They had never heard of the technology, but it has been developed and can be used to extract lithium.

Getting the lithium from seawater starts with methods that bring sodium, magnesium, and potassium with it. That much was pretty much known in the old days. But in June of 2021, a method of separating out the lithium, leaving the other elements behind, was published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science. This was widely reported at the time, for example at mining.com. (https://bit.ly/GET-lithium-2)

The method of separating out the lithium is to use an electrochemical cell containing a ceramic membrane made from lithium lanthanum titanium oxide. It happens that this substance has tiny pores will allow lithium to pass through, but they are too small to allow sodium, magnesium, or potassium atoms through. The membrane is used indefinitely, so there are not many issues about its constituents.

The process is driven by electricity, which will cost about $5 per kilogram of lithium, but it also generates hydrogen and chlorine, both of which can be trapped and sold, offsetting the cost of electricity.

This means that we can extract a huge multiple of the amount of lithium we need at a cost close to zero.

2. There really is no need to use cobalt in batteries. The original lithium-ion batteries produced by Tesla and other companies had cobalt in them, but Tesla has been switching to lithium iron phosphate batteries, which are referred to as LiFePO4 or LFP batteries. These and other forms of lithium-based batteries need no cobalt. In fact, they also do without nickel.

3. There are so many ways to store electric energy that an ordinary mortal can’t shake a stick at them all. Some of them are batteries, and some are not. Some of the batteries are really impressive.

Flow batteries are in use and becoming more common. They are entirely different from what is used in a home or car, though there are companies that are experimenting with them for automotive use. They use a number of different chemistries. An article on flow batteries appears at Wikipedia. (https://bit.ly/Flow-battery)

Many other battery types are in the works. For example metal-air batteries are coming into their own. In one case, an iron-air battery is being developed by Form Energy in Somerville, Massachusetts. Its components are water, rust, and air. As the battery is charged, the rust is turned to iron. Discharging the battery turns the iron back to rust. The cost of the electricity from storage is projected to be 10% of what the cost from lithium-ion batteries. Also, since the raw materials are so inexpensive, it is not hard to produce a 100-hour supply. The first grid battery based on the technology is set to be operating in Minnesota in 2023, supplying Great River Energy with 300 megawatts. An article on this appeared at CleanTechnica in July of 2021. (https://bit.ly/GET-lithium-3)

But of course, we really don’t need batteries at all for some applications. Pumped-hydro storage is the most important system we have so far, and has been around for nearly a hundred years. Also, G.E.T. recently had an article on energy storage, “New Technology for Energy Storage,” which deals with a number of different new approaches to the storage problem, including such things as the cryogenic system being built by Highview, here in Vermont.

Indeed, many billions of dollars are being invested in hydrogen storage, which shows some promise as a way to fuel electric vehicles with fuel cells and no batteries at all.

4. And finally, the problem of energy storage is the subject of huge amounts of research. Many scientists are devoting large parts of their work to better storage, and their efforts come out regularly.

Putting this all together, it might be safe to believe that supplies of lithium shouldn’t be a problem.

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