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Meet Lithium, the Future's Most Important Mineral

Once instrumental in curbing mood disorders, it's now an integral component in batteries for everything from iPhones to electric cars. No mineral is more important to tomorrow—and this quick guide will get you acquainted.

by Mclean Gordon
Jul 11 2013, 10:10pm
Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia Image: Flickr cc

Rock On is a weekly column about the mysterious minerals, metals, and rocks which make up the world in which we live. We look at the history, economics, politics, spiritual vibes, and futures of the hardest things on the planet.

Besides being the only mineral after which Nirvana named a song, lithium is also a mood-stabilizer prescribed for severe cases of bipolar disorder. An effective antidote for an illness described callously in the past as a cause of "binges of promiscuity, psychotic rages, out-of-control spending and suicide," lithium has long been proven to help people calm tumultuous emotions. As recently as 1949, 7-Up contained the the greyish-silver metal. With some estimates claiming that up to fifty percent of people who suffer from bipolar disorder attempt suicide, lithium remains a useful medical tool despite the serious risks it poses for the kidneys and liver.

Lithium’s actual mechanism on the brain is poorly understood. As far back as the 2nd century A.D., naturally occurring lithium in Italian mineral waters was considered to be a cure for mania. At a time when mania was linked to witchcraft and demonic possession, euthanasia was another cure, so lithium was actually a pretty good deal. In the late 19th century, the popularity of lithia spring water was setting the stage for the current bottled H2O mania.

In 1949, Australian psychiatrist John Cade was experimenting with injecting urine from schizophrenic patients into rats in the hopes of isolating metabolic compounds causing mental symptoms. Using lithium urate as a control with the schizophrenic patients’ urine, he stumbled upon its calming effect on the rodents. Applications for patients suffering from mood disorders soon followed.

Image: Wikimedia

While the therapeutic properties of lithium outweigh the element’s damaging effects on the liver and kidneys only in case of life-threatening mood disorders, the element’s electrochemical powers make it a crucial commodity for cellphones and laptops. The lithium ion battery relies on the soft, reactive metal’s light weight and high energy density to give life to the gadgets of mobile communications. And as entrepreneurs like Tesla Motors strive to cure automobiles from the ills of fossil fuels, it is the lithium ion battery that holds the key to the electric highway.  

With the demand for lithium steadily on the rise, governments and corporations scramble across the globe to grab supplies. Lithium consumption shot up a dramatic ten percent in 2012, according to the USGS, and with no end to demand for mobile devices and electric vehicles in sight, lithium production will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

Though it is traded internationally, there is no public market for lithium. Contracts are negotiated directly between suppliers and end users, making prices difficult to gauge accurately. Current estimates value one ton of lithium in the ballpark of $6,500, so with total annual worldwide mine production at 37,000 tons according to the USGS, 2012’s lithium haul would represent around $240,000,000. Small potatoes compared to something like gold, lithium’s value as an integral part of batteries makes it a strategic resource, and its humble current dollar value belies its importance to the expanding world economy.

Currently, the U.S. House of Representatives is deliberating over something called the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, (NSCMPA) which, if enacted, would require those government agencies responsible for permitting domestic mining operations to hasten the production of those minerals, like lithium, deemed critical to the nation's ongoing rock race with big and bad China. Lithium is right up there on the list of minerals that the U.S. will need on hand to remain a contender for the title of world economic and military overlord.

Nevada Congressman Mark Amodei, who Introduced the NSCMPA Image: Wikipedia cc

Historically, lithium has come from granite-like pegmatites such as spodumene and its soft, pink cousin lepidolite. As readily available supplies dwindle, this kind of pick ax and hard hat extraction becomes increasingly costly.

More recently, lithium production has transitioned to a technique called brine processing. Brine processing involves pumping brines from subsurface aquifers and then running them through a series of evaporation ponds. As the sun beats down on the brines, the concentrated minerals left behind by the evaporated water contains lithium. This brine processing process relies on solar energy and is widely viewed as environmentally sound. It has even been suggested that carbon could be put into the ground to replace brines pumped from subsurface aquifers, making lithium production a double win. 

The largest proven reserves of lithium are in the expansive salt flats of the Andes mountains, spanning the borders between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. The largest such flat, the breathtaking Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia, which has been called the "Saudi Arabia of lithium," becomes a massive reflective pool whenever it rains, perfectly mirroring the heavens above. With reserves of lithium in the Salar estimated to be close to nine million tons—forty three percent of total global reserves—the vast salty flats eleven thousand feet high in the Andes are a critical resource for Bolivia. Wary of being exploited by foreign corporations, the Bolivian government continues to resist mining ventures, the lithium of the Salar remains untapped.

Within the past year, researchers from the University of Wyoming claimed to have discovered vast supplies of lithium in the Rock Springs Uplift in the Southwest part of the state. According to their predictions, this lithium source could contain as much of 18 million tons worth of potential reserves. While this supply needs to be more fully investigated, that would be 720 years worth of lithium at current production rates, with a projected value of half a trillion dollars.

While all such estimates must be taken with a grain of salt, one thing is clear: the ramping up of lithium production is an inevitable consequence of relentless global demand for portable electronics.  The glorious advent of the electric vehicle will only increse that demand, and the lithium of the world will be an increasingly important economic factor in years to come.