All the buzz about a magic metal known as lithium

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Photo shows brine ponds and processing areas of a Chilean lithium mine in the Atacama Desert on Sept 12, 2022. – AFP photo

LITHIUM (Li) is the relatively new ‘buzz’ word as we all have such batteries in our mobile phones, laptops, and some are even lucky enough to own electric powered cars. This element is often found in prescribed medical drugs for those suffering from depression. It is not a newly-discovered substance, for it was first found by a Brazilian chemist, Boniface de Andrada e Silva, in a mine on the Swedish granitic island of Uto in 1800, in the form of petalite.

Originally, it was termed ‘lithion’ or ‘lithina’ from the Greek word ‘lithos’ meaning stone, but it was not until 1817 that a Swedish chemist, Johan Arfwedson found its presence in the minerals spodumene and lepidolite. For several years, scientists tried to isolate this element from the salts in which it was contained and in 1821 William Brande finally managed to extract this element by electrolysis.

History of lithium battery

Thomas Edison (of electric light fame), in 1900, was the first engineer to use lithium in a battery. By sprinkling a little lithium hydroxide onto a compound of nickel, iron, soaked in a potassium hydroxide solution, he found that the battery’s capacity was increased by 10 per cent.

We had to wait until the 1970s before an English research chemist, Stanley Whittingham, came up with the idea of producing a longer-lasting battery using Li, which held 15 times the electrical charge of a lead acid battery, but each time he made a bigger battery it burst into flames.

It was in the 1980s that John Goodenough (who recently died), an American professor, working in Oxford University’s Department of Inorganic Chemistry, discovered that lithium cobalt oxide improved the capacity and, indeed, the safety of such batteries. He is accredited with inventing the world’s first rechargeable Li battery.

In 1991, the first Li-ion battery was invented by Akira Yoshino, a Japanese research scientist at Asahi Chemical Industry Co. Whittingham, Goodenough, and Yoshino were jointly awarded the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 2019 in recognition of their discoveries.

Akira Yoshino (left) receives his Nobel Prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweeden at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden on Dec 10, 2019. – AFP photo

Properties of this ‘magic’ metal:

  • No other metal is as good at storing energy.
  • It is so light in weight that it will float on oil.
  • It is so soft that it can be sliced with a sharp knife.
  • So reactive is it that when in contact with water or damp air, it will explode with a bang.
  • No other metal (to date) on our planet has provided so many uses for mankind.

Where and in what form is Li extracted?

It is mainly found in brines and ores and its reserves worldwide are estimated to be about a disputable 98 million tonnes. Its price on the world metal markets is forever increasing. Ten countries produce Li with another 16 countries having Li reserves. The four major producers are Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina in that order.

West of the Andes Mountains in South America there are high quality lithium bearing salt flats making up the ’Lithium Triangle’ bordering Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina and comprising 75 per cent of the world’s reserves.

Here, the salty brine is pumped directly from the ground and relies on the sun’s evaporation whilst it is stored in ponds. This process can require up to 18 months before the brine reaches 6 per cent lithium content. The liquid is then taken to a refinery where distilled lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, and lithium chloride are produced and then this is shipped in powder form to worldwide battery producers.

The fastest growing sector of the Li industry is the mining of lithium spodumene in hard rock, where it is found in higher grade deposits. These need to be detonated out of the ground. Australia currently leads the world in this form of production and most of its ores are shipped to China.

The greatest reserves of this ore lie in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which also contains most of the world’s cobalt. Both minerals are used in high performance batteries in smart phones and cars. Portugal has very recently agreed to create one of Europe’s biggest lithium mines and aims to produce enough lithium to power half a million electric cars per annum. The UK is following in hot pursuit with authorisation granted to two companies to extract Li from old quarries and former tin mines in Cornwall, the most Southwest-county in England.

Rejuvenation of Cornish mining industry 

Cornish tin had been produced since the early Phoenicians traded with that mining area, but it was the early 19th century that saw its mining at its heyday. As cheaper extraction procedures in the form of Malaysian alluvial tin dredging, in the Ipoh area, took over, so Cornwall’s place in the world’s metal markets declined. The very last tin mine closed in 1998.

Both regions have significant granitic exposures in which tin ore veins are embedded. In Cornwall’s case the ore is locked in the rock and necessitated deep mining but in West Malaysia millions of years of tropical weathering had washed the tin out into rivers as alluvial deposits, which were easily dredged.

One of the minerals contained in granite is mica – a lithium rich source and plans are afoot to rework spoil heaps from the old China clay industry in central Cornwall.

A further source of lithium is held underground in thermal salty springs, which were regarded as ‘a damn nuisance’ by tin miners for they seeped into the tin mines. In local dialect the miners referred to this water seepage as ‘litha’ and then did not realise the economic value of this liquid!

As I write, lithium has been refined from a factory there and the future of this mineral rich English county looks relatively secure as long as we need batteries!

As a born and bred Cornishman, I can only echo the thoughts of old miners in Cornish dialect: “Thar’s (there is) gold in ‘em (them) ol (old) ‘ills (hills)!” Cornwall is, indeed, a magic county steeped in Celtic folklore and traditions, magnificent coastal and moorland scenery, and friendly people, yet it has become one of the most economically-deprived areas of the UK. Let us pray that lithium will be the new gold there!

Uses of lithium 

To date 65 per cent is used in battery manufacturing, 18 per cent in the ceramics and glass industries, and 5 per cent in the production of lubricating greases, mostly for aircraft engines, with the rest used for high performance aircraft materials, pharmaceuticals, polymers, and aluminium production. With such a variety of uses no wonder it is called the magic metal!

Costs to humanity

In environmental terms, the extraction of Li can cause both surface and drinking water contamination, the degradation of ecosystems, as well as harm plants and animals in the areas surrounding the mines. Open pit mining creates huge depressions in the landscape and contamination in deeper mines by other minerals such as arsenic and antimony.

Indigenous communities have been affected in Argentina and the USA for the Native people were not informed prior to the opening of the mines, which have threatened their sacred sites and, in some instances, burial grounds.

We are in a catch 22 situation for we need Li-ion batteries to power electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions but the processing plants, in many cases, use thermal generated power to refine lithium. When you replace your Li-ion batteries in your laptops, smart phones, hearing aids, or are even fortunate enough to own an electric-powered car, do spare a thought for those people near to where lithium is extracted and the environmental damage that may be caused by its extraction and processing.

We are very blessed in many ways with the discovery and uses of this alkali metal, but it is at some loss to us all. Hopefully, the prices of electric powered cars will soon fall and that more recharging stations will become available!