A startup company called Simbol Materials believes it can increase the domestic (U.S) production of lithium by capturing it, in addition to zinc and manganese, from the brine used by geothermal power plants.
The brine mentioned is actually a very hot fluid that is pumped from a hot area deep in the earth’s crust, and the heat it contains is used to boil water to produce steam.
A geothermal power plant is a form of steam power plant (although it doesn’t have to be steam-powered).
Demand for lithium is expected to increase due to increasing demand for portable electronics, such as laptops, cell phones, and iPads, and more, as well as anticipated increases in hybrid and electric vehicle demand.
You may be concerned when you find that elemental lithium is rare, but please note that is not where the lithium for li-ion batteries is obtained. It is extracted from non-elemental lithium compounds (not pure lithium), such as lithium carbonate, lithium brine, hectorite clay, lithium hydroxide, and other sources.
In the 1990’s, the U.S produced 75% of the world’s lithium carbonate, and now it produces only 5% of it. This is partially due to the fact that the U.S does not produce it as cheaply as Chile does. And this could be due to multiple reasons, one of them being low wages. Wages and salaries are an important part of the cost of production, and in some economies, such as the Chinese and Chilean ones, workers are sometimes paid extremely low wages,.. an unfortunate way to lower the cost of products.
Mining, in general, has at least some environmental impact, but due to the fact that geothermal power plants pump lithium containing fluid up from underground anyway, it is an environmentally (and possibly economically) wise idea to obtain lithium, manganese, and zinc from that fluid, as it reduces the need for mining.
Another idea is to cut the cost of both geothermal power (in areas where it would normally be too expensive) and lithium by also using the power plant as a lithium production facility, so the money invested in the plant could also be stretched to facilitate lithium, manganese, and zinc production.
Who knows what’s next — someone may even use the wasted heat from geothermal steam engines to heat water.
h/t: Technology Review | Photo Credit: Simbol Materials
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