Energy Insights

Something to Think About

How many times a day do we think about lithium? Yet we rely on it constantly. Anybody with a smartphone, tablet or laptop depends on lithium to work and communicate, while those with electric vehicles depend on lithium to travel.

But who thinks about it and why would they? Lithium an essential ingredient in the rechargeable batteries that power our devices and vehicles. As long as our EVs start and our phones work, we go about our busy days.

But there are people out there who think about lithium a lot. And they’re not just the people who manufacture lithium-ion batteries or the people who extract lithium from the ground.

There are some who are looking into the future, knowing that lithium will soon become the life blood of the world’s transportation system, and they know current reserves will not be enough to meet the demand.

Like wildcatters looking for oil in the past, exploration geologists are combing the earth in search for lithium. But have you ever wondered where it comes from?

Lithium can be found in coarsely crystalline granites known as pegmatites, which are igneous rocks that form from magma that has slowly cooled within the earth. Spodumene, petalite and lepidolite are lithium-rich minerals sought after by hard rock miners in volcanic ore bodies. When found in these forms, such as in western Australia, miners must excavate the earth to remove these materials.

In some parts of the world, such as in the Andes of South America, lithium-rich rocks and sediments can be uplifted by the mountains and then erode naturally, which can then be dissolved by rainwater and snowmelt, then eventually concentrated in valley basins or salt plains called playas. Even though the lake beds are dry at the surface, lithium can be highly concentrated in the brines beneath, which some mining companies pump into enormous evaporation ponds, which are used to separate lithium concentrate from other chemicals.

While enormous volumes of hard rock and brine lithium reserves have already been discovered around the world, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is among many who are evaluating alternative lithium resources for the future.

It has been reported that 8% of known global lithium resources are found in sedimentary deposits, which include clay deposits and lacustrine deposits. In a 2019 study, the USGS set out to evaluate all potential lithium resources around the Great Basin of the western United States, which included these sediments and other sources, such as volcanic ash beds and geothermal brines.

Mining companies have been quick to propose projects in these areas in an attempt to get into the lithium game. However, projects in the Salton Sea have been plagued by challenges associated with the extremely hot temperatures of the brine, and the volcanic ash beds of Clayton Valley and Thacker Pass have yet to be produced due to environmental challenges and political red tape.

Another resource identified by the USGS that has yet to be exploited are oil and gas reservoirs. Although a few projects are underway in Arkansas, Utah and Alberta, Canada, they are in early stages of development. The search for lithium in similar reservoirs has most likely been hampered by limited data and access to these deep formations, plus skepticism shown toward technologies required to extract the lithium. However, new companies and research are showing some potential.

If we know nothing else, the world is enormous, and its geology is complex. We also know there is plentiful lithium within the earth’s crust. However, finding economic concentrations and amounts of lithium that can be produced in environmentally sensible ways is the challenge.