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In northern Chile, there is a place called the Salar de Atacama. During the last Ice Age, it was a large lake, but now it's one of the driest spots on Earth. All that remains now is a salar, or salt flat.
The brine found beneath the surface is processed through a series of evaporative pools, which concentrate certain elements. At the end of this series, the brine takes on a sickly yellow-green color. Why? Because of the lithium concentration.
Without lithium, the Wireless Revolution grinds to a halt!
The "Saudi Arabia of Lithium"
Cell phones, smart phones, laptops, tablets, and even electric cars all run on the magic of lithium batteries. Lithium batteries have become crucial to modern living. The Salar de Atacama, called the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”, provides the world with 30 percent of its lithium needs.
The lithium-rich salt comes from the unusual chemistry of the surrounding mountains. The Pacific ocean floor (Nazca Plate) burrows beneath South America - and has been for millions of years - creating the Andes Mountains and many volcanoes. Some lavas, especially rhyolites, are very lithium-rich. Rain leached lithium away into valleys and formed ancient lakes. Today the lakes are gone. But below the surface, the brine remains and can be processed for its precious lithium.
The Modern Super-Battery
What’s so special about lithium batteries?
Batteries create a stream of electrons. In your car’s lead-acid battery, electrons are pulled off of lead atoms. Lead is a very heavy, with an atomic weight of 207. But, lithium is the third-lightest element in the universe! Lithium is the lightest of all metals, with an atomic weight of about 7 (thirty times less than lead).
Therefore, lithium can provide the same electrons without the weight. Lithium batteries are very small and very powerful, but they’re also volatile with a high heat output. In the mid-2000s, Sony had to recall many of its batteries because some laptops were catching on fire!
Seth Fletcher’s highly readable book "Bottled Lightning" describes the evolution of the lithium battery in copious detail, from its conception in the 1970s, its evolution in the 1980s, and to its implementation in the 1990s. Portable phones started out so heavy that they were only portable in vehicles (the “car phones”). Smaller lithium batteries transformed bulky cell phones into smaller devices that could fit in your pocket.
Increased power. Increased portability. Voilá! The wireless revolution was born!
Are We Running Low on Lithium?
The greater the demand for cell phones (and smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc.), the greater the demand for lithium. If the electric car were to become mainstream, the world lithium demand would explode exponentially. William Tahil once predicted a kind of future "Lithium Crisis," similar to the predicted Oil Crisis. Geologist R. Keith Evans countered that world lithium reserves were sufficient for generations to come.
The problem with such predictions is that global lithium reserve estimates change every year, as do global rates of consumption. For that matter, lithium – unlike oil – is recyclable.
Our geology underfoot is a treasure. The earth’s tin and copper ores supplied our Bronze Age. Iron ores forged our Iron Age. Coal and oil fueled the Industrial Age. But the blood of the Modern Age is lithium! The geology within our earth keeps mixing with the imagination in the human mind. We can only guess at what Age comes next.
Fletcher, Seth. Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.
Koerner, Brendan I. “The Saudi Arabia of Lithium.” Forbes 2008.
“The Trouble with Lithium: Implications of PHEV Production for Lithium Demand.” Tahil, William. December, 2006. Accessed on 24 November, 2013. http://www.evworld.com/library/lithium_shortage.pdf
“An Abundance of Lithium.” Evans, R. Keith. March, 2008. Accessed on 24 November, 2013. http://lithiumabundance.blogspot.com
U.S. Geological Survey. 2013. Mineral Commodity Survey 2013: Lithium. Reston, VA, USA: U.S. Geological Survey http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/mcs-2013-lithi.pdf Accessed on 24 November 2013.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.