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Tech by VICE

Wyoming's Lithium Jackpot Will Help Us Build the Batteries of the Future

Scientists have discovered a single lithium deposit that could meet the entire nation's annual demand.

by Brian Merchant
May 4 2013, 1:00pm
Image: University of Wyoming

One of the technological advances we most desperately need to see over the next couple of years is kind of boring: We need to build a better battery. And stat. Now, the batteries of the future are quite likely going to be of the lithium-ion variety, as laptop and electric car batteries currently are. Which means we're going to need a hell of a lot of lithium, too. So the fact that scientists from the University of Wyoming just uncovered a truly massive lithium deposit in our own backyard may be a game-changer. 

The researchers drilled wells in Wyoming's Rock Springs Uplift. And underneath these jagged high plains, they discovered that the "reservoir brines from a 25-square-mile area of the uplift could contain 228,000 tons of lithium: enough to meet annual U.S. demand."

Yes, the scientists are claiming a single deposit could meet America's entire appetite for batteries. Here's why that's important: Environmentalists are concerned that there won't be enough lithium to build the kind of batteries we need—and as long as that's deemed to be a potential supply constraint, fewer folks will seek to build more and better batteries using the soft grey metal. 

Michael Graham Richards points out that there is enough lithium in Bolivia alone to build 4.8 billion electric car batteries. But that nation is justifiably reluctant to rapaciously harvest its resources, and it has one of the few government-decreed statutes that guarantees protection to the environment.

A lithium mine. via Wikimedia

So, having a massive lithium ion deposit here in our own backyard should further incentivize energy storage innovation—if Americans can profit off of a plentiful resource, we shall find a way. 

And we kind of need to find a way. Because the primary means by which we currently power our cars, appliances, and gadgets is with fossil fuels. And that stuff is ruining everything (loading the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases, polluting our cities, and generally making everyone miserable). So we need more stuff like wind and solar—but in order for renewable sources like that to become more reliable, we need to be able to store energy 24/7, too.

Which means we need better and bigger batteries. Not just for cars and laptops and gadgets, but batteries that can store excess wind and solar power, too. And now we know that there's enough lithium, right here in Red State, USA, to feed such a boom. 

Better battery tech, in concert with smarter energy grids and management, will be instrumental in weaning us away from the climate-killing fossil fuel paradigm we're currently hooked on. It may yet be the missing link between sweaty dystopian ruin and a sustainably run set of societies—at least now we know we've got enough raw materials to work with. If we decide to hop to it and ditch the carbon, anyway.