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When I first started to get interested in environmental chemistry, I was particularly intrigued by trace elements: what elements were essential to biology and what elements were toxic. Lithium was a special case: it had no documented biochemical role, yet it was widely known to alleviate some symptoms of depression associated with bipolar disorder. Not much else was said about lithium 40 years ago.
Now we hear about lithium all the time, especially from airlines that don’t want us traveling with “spare lithium batteries.” I am never sure which of my many batteries are lithium and which are not. I suspect most other passengers don’t know either. Onward we fly.
All the current excitement about electric vehicles depends on the availability and improvements in lithium batteries. Tesla will soon market a car that can go about 400 miles on a single charge of its batteries, which comprise about one-third of the cost of the entire vehicle.
Knowing how frequently we are faced with shortages of petroleum and increasing costs of gasoline, I thought it might be interesting to unearth what I could about the availability of lithium as a commodity. Its price has doubled on the commodity market within the last year. Are lithium resources in short supply? Who has them and who doesn’t? Would mass-production and distribution of lithium cause any environmental or human health effects?
Lithium is not terribly abundant in the Universe or the Earth’s crust, where it amounts to 18 parts-per-million. It is often associated with granitic rocks, and is released as they weather at the Earth’s surface. It accumulates in the weathered remains of those rocks, especially in arid climates. Thus, the desert of Chile harbors some of the largest lithium deposits and active mines. The U.S. has an active mine for lithium in Nevada.
The current world production of lithium from mines is about 32,500 tons per year. Manufacturing batteries, especially for cars, is one of the largest consumers of lithium. The typical electric vehicle might contain more than 20 pounds of lithium in its batteries, and to meet this demand, production has ramped up exponentially in the past decade. Even so, lithium is not in short supply, and known global reserves can support the current production for more than 400 years. Recycling could extend that projection for even more years, and exciting new developments are on the horizon in the design of lithium batteries that may allow us to get much more storage per unit of lithium employed.
Except for direct exposure to pure lithium metal or lithium hydroxide, lithium has no recognized threats to the environment or human health. We can hope that recycling of lithium batteries will return most of the metal for reuse. Currently, the mining of lithium in Chile, which involves the evaporation of brines pumped from groundwater, potentially threatens the water supply for the endangered Andean flamingo. This should be monitored carefully to avoid an undesirable outcome.
Lithium may well be a good way to avoid getting in a bad mood from high gasoline prices.
Goonan, T.G. 2012. Lithium use in batteries. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1371. http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1371/
Gruber, P.W., P.A. Medina, G.A. Keoleian, S.E. Kesler, M.P. Everson and T.J. Wallington. 2011. Global lithium availability. Journal of Industrial Ecology 15: 760-775.
Ortiz, G., R. Aravena, B.E. Briones, F. Suarez, C. Tore, and J.F. Munoz. 2014. Sources of surface water for the Soncor ecosystem, Salar de Atacama basin, northern Chile. Hydrological Sciences 59: 336-350.
Service, R.F. 2016. The battery builder. Science 352: 1046-1049.
Speirs, J., M. Contestabile, V. Houari and R. Gross. 2014. The future of lithium availability for electric vehicle batteries. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 35: 183-193.
United States Geological Survey (USGS) 2016. Mineral Commodity Summary. Lithium. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/
 Expressed as elemental content of Li
 For comparisons, see my earlier posts on phosphorus (http://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/citizenscientist/phosphorus-futures/) and copper (http://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/citizenscientist/the-old-copper-kettle/).