There is no question that electric vehicles are the future. Although projections are all over the map, a decent guess is that by 2030 something like fifty percent of new car sales will be electric. The number for fleet vehicles such as cabs, urban buses, and delivery vans will be even higher. They will all need rechargeable batteries and right now Lithium is the material of choice for those batteries.
Most metals can be used in batteries and the periodic chart is populated by scores of metals. In fact, the majority of elements in the universe are metals. What makes Lithium unique is its charge to weight ratio. Lithium is the lightest metal and can exist as a stable ion. This means it is capable of giving up or accepting an electron, a necessary function of a battery.
Think of a charged battery as a reservoir of electrons. When a battery-powered device is turned on a circuit is completed which allows the electrons to flow. This is the electric current that does whatever work the device was built for, be it lighting a flashlight or powering an electric vehicle. Reversing the duty cycle will recharge the battery.
Current world demand for Lithium is about twenty thousand tonnes per annum and is expected to double in just five years. A large chunk of this is produced from brine wells in the Atacama, a high desert in Chile. The brine, with a relatively high concentration of Lithium, is pumped to surface ponds and allowed to evaporate – the Atacama is not only the driest place in the world but also one of the sunniest.
Trouble comes with the removal of the brine. This simultaneously lowers the water table for freshwater. In the driest place on earth, this is a big deal. Imminent local regulation is expected to reduce the allowed brine removal and therefore limit Lithium production. Other sources are being examined for Lithium production, most notably Arkansas.
A veritable ocean of brine exists under south Arkansas. This brine has been a source of crude oil and other industrial chemicals for years, especially Bromine. The Smackover formation originally produced mainly oil with Bromine from brine as a byproduct. Currently, Bromine produced in Arkansas represents the total US production and this is a third of the global supply.
A company is now exploring the possibility of producing Lithium as a byproduct of Bromine production. The Lithium is to be removed along with the Bromine, then the spent brine is re-injected. Bromine production in Arkansas is an eight hundred million dollar enterprise employing a thousand Arkansans. If Lithium production is practical it will add to both income and jobs in Arkansas.
Although all eyes are on Lithium as a battery component there are numerous other uses. Lithium grease, refereed to as White Lithium, is a valuable lubricant as it uniquely adheres to metal. Much Lithium is used in glass and ceramic manufacture. Finally, Lithium is valuable as a treatment for bipolar disorder.
Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.