Keeping up with Exploding Lithium Demand
In absolute terms, lithium is not particularly rare on Earth. It’s the 25th most abundant element, close to nickel and lead. Bolivia alone is estimated to have enough lithium to make batteries for 4.8 billion electric cars, and since lithium is not destroyed in use – unlike fossil fuels – old batteries can be recycled into new ones, or used to smooth out the output of wind farms.
So the question isn’t: Will we have enough lithium? Rather, it’s more like: As demand for it explodes, can we ramp up production rapidly enough, at a low enough cost, and while keeping it as environmentally-friendly as possible. It’s still probably going to be much better to make a battery once and then use it for years with progressively cleaner electricity (as the grid incorporates more and more renewable energy) rather than fill up a gas tank with non-renewable fossil fuels from halfway around the world every week, but even in that scenario, it’s going to be better if we can get the lithium cleanly and close to where we’ll use it. That’s where geothermal power plants enter the picture…
Two Birds with One Stone (Without Harming Any Birds)
Geothermal energy has a bright future. It hasn’t quite made the cost reduction breakthroughs that it needs to reach critical mass, but there’s little doubt that in the coming decades we’ll use more and more of it to provide clean baseload electricity. But what if we could also get lithium out of it? A Californian startup named Simbol Materials believe that it can extract lithium, as well as zinc and manganese, from the brine that is pumped by geothermal power plants. They expect to be able to compete with the lowest-cost Chilean lithium producers, as well as produce the world’s purest lithium carbonate.
Technology Review writes:
Simbol currently runs a pilot plant that filters 20 gallons a minute. The commercial plant, near Salton Sea, which will begin construction in 2012, will have the capacity to produce 16,000 tons of lithium carbonate annually. The world’s third-largest producer, by comparison, makes 22,000 tons. By 2020, Simbol plans to triple production by expanding to more geothermal plants, Erceg says. But for now, it is buying low-grade lithium carbonate from other manufacturers for purification, and it expects to sell the high-purity product overseas before the end of this year.
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