Lithium and The New ‘White-Gold’ Rush

Paula LabrotBy Paula Labrot      August 19, 2022

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Lithium and The New ‘White-Gold’ Rush
A Geo-thermal plant generates electricity by using underground heat to make steam, which is pushed through a turbine that turns an electricity generator.
Most of us barely remember the element Lithium from the Periodic Table. It is the third lightest element, coming in with an atomic weight of 3 after Hydrogen and Helium. It is the lightest, least dense of all solid elements. According to Britannica.com, Lithium is too reactive and flammable to exist freely by itself in nature. It is found in mineral compounds in igneous rock formed by cooled magma. It is also present in briny water. Lithiumnews.com reports 87% of the world’s Lithium comes from salt lakes. The remaining 13% is mined traditionally. Chile has the world’s largest supply of Lithium, followed by Australia, Argentina, China and Portugal. According to Solarreviews.com, “Although lithium can be found all over the United States, there is only one operating mine in the country: the Albemarle Silver Peak Mine in Nevada. This mine uses the brine extraction method to pull the lithium deposits from under the earth’s surface. The brine is usually found below the surface of dry lake beds, typically in deserts. Uses of Lithium To most people, Lithium is usually associated with the management of bi-polar disorder. Lithium affects the flow of sodium through nerve and muscle cells in the body and is an effective mood stabilizer used to treat or control the manic episodes. Manic symptoms include hyperactivity, rushed speech, poor judgment, reduced need for sleep, aggression, and anger. But, it is in the industrial arena where Lithium has become such a hot commodity. According to Lithium News, 56% of Lithium production is used for battery production. The largest consumer of Lithium-ion batteries is the EV (electric vehicles) industry, although 36% of Lithium batteries is used for portable electronic devices like computers and cell phones. Why? “Lithium is highly reactive; as a result, it easily conducts a current through a battery. Lithium is also much lighter than other metals used in batteries, which means it is good for small objects such as phones, as well as for cars that require a lot of battery power. Lastly, Lithium batteries are re-chargeable,” according to Lithium-news.com. Geo-Political Issues Current global political conditions have exposed the vulnerabilities of depending on foreign supply chains. The race is on around the world to develop more local sources of Lithium and the manufacturing facilities needed to produce Lithium-ion batteries. Right now, most of the Lithium batteries used in industry are manufactured in China, who gets the Lithium from Chile and other developing nations where they are paying off officials and practicing unfettered environmental damage and human rights violations with laborers. Look out, Mother Earth! Mining always has a big footprint. Environmental journalist Maeve Campbell writes, “Any type of resource extraction is harmful to the planet. This is because removing these raw materials can result in soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem functions and an increase in global warming.” Lithium mining does have some serious environmental side effects. Emily Walker, content marketer at energysage.com, writes about the two main methods of mining for Lithium. “The ore (rock with valuable minerals) is extracted from either open-pit or underground mines through boring holes drilled hundreds of feet beneath Earth’s surface. This process requires large supplies of water and emits significant amounts of carbon dioxide.Extracting lithium from brine lake deposits requires even more water and typically takes place in areas experiencing drought conditions.” Billions of gallons of water are used, ground water is contaminated, flora and fauna are threatened with extinction. In a report by Friends of the Earth, Campbell finds, “Lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. As demand rises, the mining impacts are “increasingly affecting communities where this harmful extraction takes place, jeopardizing their access to water… In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates, and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities.” The Salton Sea A third method of mining Lithium is a geo-thermal approach. A geothermal plant generates electricity by using underground heat to make steam, which is pushed through a turbine that turns an electricity generator. Geo-thermal plants pump hot, steamy water to the surface. Guess what? The water is briny! Mineral rich briny, including Lithium. Lithium carbonate, zinc and manganese can be captured out of the wastewater from this process. This method is, actually, a greener approach. There are three companies who want to do this at the Salton Sea, Riverside’s shallow, land-locked, highly saline body of water and a critical environmental habitat for birds along the Pacific Flyway, including 95% of the White Pelicans. It turns out, the Salton Sea is the Saudi Arabia of Lithium. There are already 11 geo-thermal plants in the area, so it would be a matter of just setting up recovery systems to grab the Lithium before cooled water is pumped back underground. However, the plan includes adding battery factories in the same area. This kind of development could provide money for restoration projects to save the polluted, drought-starved, shrinking, dying lake, like building a canal to the Sea of Cortez so the lake would have an outlet to be able to start cleaning itself, and the creation of lower salinity ponds to support wildlife. Doubting locals worry about environmental damage and effects on earthquake activity as drilling takes place right over the San Andreas Fault. But to the mostly poor, Mexican-American, 12% unemployed area inhabitants, the project offers hope of what could be a brighter future in a transfer from a dying agricultural economy to a green industry economy. All kinds of studies are underway, but it seems California has a new industry about to explode in “Lithium Valley.” Call your broker! Vamos a ver!
Paula Labrot
      August 19, 2022

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