#3 Lithium

Lithium (Li) is not a stable substance. The pure metal has to be stored under oil because it will oxidize immediately on contact with air. It will react explosively to water. One does not find pure lithium metal in a natural setting.

The main ore of lithium is spodumene. It’s a silicate mineral, LiAl(SiO3)2, and it is extracted via hard rock mining. The largest spodumene deposit in the world is in the Congo (DRC). The ore is roasted to a very high temperature (900 C) and the lithium is extracted with various reagents. Much of the mined lithium is marketed as lithium hydroxide, LiOH. This material is used in the ceramics industry and of course in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium is present in brines, typically as lithium carbonate (LiCO3). Chile is a major source. The brines are pumped to the surface and evaporated from large pans. The remaining salts are processed to obtain the lithium. Lithium carbonate is an important medicine in treating mental illness. And of course this stuff is needed for the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries.

Electric vehicles (EVs) need these batteries. Li-ion batteries can hold enough charge to power the motors for a long enough time, they can be recharged over and over again, and they are light enough to lug around in the trunk mile after mile. But light they are not. An EV’s batteries can be 1000 pounds! EVs are heavier than gas-guzzlers because those big Li-ion battery packs weigh a lot.

We’ve all used Li-ion batteries and battery packs in rechargeable and cordless products. They are everywhere. And their use will continue to grow. Wood Mackenzie says we’ll use five times more than we use now by 2030. Those folks are in the forecasting business so maybe they know something. It certainly isn’t hard to imagine our society wanting more of something! A look at the graph below will show you the impact of all that demand for Li-ion batteries—capitalism in action.

That means more mining, of course. The greening of the economy will require the largest investment in resource extraction in history. Lithium compounds are just one piece of the puzzle.

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