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Why Mining Lithium and Lithium-Ion Battery Demand Influence Social and Economic Issues

The very light metal lithium in oil

The very light metal lithium in oil

Lithium: The Darling of Tech

Lithium is one of the most widely mined and used minerals in the making of batteries. Be it car batteries, digital camera batteries, or phone batteries, lithium will be necessary and is much more effective at generating electricity. This has been the case for many years now. Many companies and individuals have accepted it, and that is the major reason lithium rechargeable ion batteries are so positively viewed.

One setback to that confidence has been recent problems with lithium-ion batteries in the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. In two recent cases, lithium batteries have overheated or caught fire resulting in the grounding of the aircraft. The plane uses mainly electricity instead of pneumatics for aircraft control. Still, the technology sector has great confidence in the future of lithium.

Where Is Lithium Found?

Relatively speaking, there are few places where lithium is mined, and the outlook for future deposits is guarded. Some of the top lithium mining spots are Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Afghanistan.

One of the latest finds that is gaining quite a bit of attention is in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. Of the $1 trillion of not-yet mined minerals in Afghanistan, the Pentagon claims that Afghanistan could be the "new Saudi Arabia of lithium". This comes after Soviet documents left behind after their war in Afghanistan showed maps and research documents pointing to huge deposits.

Further, an aerial and geological investigation by the United States corroborates much of the information left by the Soviets

How Lithium Ion Batteries Have Changed the World

If you open your phone, your laptop, or your iPad, you'll see a li-ion battery. Lithium is the cleanest source of power that exists. If you happen to own a hybrid car, there are very high chances that the car is powered using nickel hydride batteries. However, plans are on the table for major auto manufacturers to use lithium car batteries in green electric cars.

The cost of lithium metal varied in January of 2018 from $22.60 per kilogram in China to $16 per kg in Europe. Lithium is not only light but also cheap and in recent times has become a major choice for most manufacturers across the entire globe.

If you want to buy digital camera batteries today, there are good chances with improved battery technology that you will be buying a lithium battery. Some of the main compounds of lithium used in manufacturing are lithium metal, lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, lithium bromide, and more complex compounds. These are used to make ceramic glasses resistant to rapid temperature change, as an element in glazing which results in lower melting points, in aluminum production, in man-made rubber, plastics and pharmaceuticals, in specialty lubricants and greases, batteries, and air conditioning.

The list of lithium compounds with varying characteristics of huge potential in technology is staggering; the materials for lithium-ion batteries come from these kinds of compounds.

A chart showing the abundances of the naturally-occurring isotopes of lithium

A chart showing the abundances of the naturally-occurring isotopes of lithium

The Drawbacks of Lithium Batteries and Where Rechargeable Batteries Win

As much as lithium batteries have been widely accepted all over the world, there are limiting factors that come with them. They can store more potential energy than previous batteries (like lead plate ones), but they still cannot hold sufficient charge for many applications. Lithium batteries allow for recharging, but innovators want faster charging. This kind of drawback is being addressed now.

A company in California claims it has developed a better lithium I battery that will improve cell energy density and be constructed from less expensive material. This new battery may well be the answer to lowering the cost of EVs and increasing their range. Says Michael Thackeray, of Argonne National Laboratory, "The goal is always to increase voltage, energy capacity, and battery life and to put it all in smaller and smaller containers – safely.”

Another drawback to manufacturing with lithium is its availability geographically and politically. It is estimated that Bolivia has half the known reserves of lithium in the world. Southern Bolivia's Salar De Uyuni, nearly 5000 square miles in area, is a dry place containing many cactus and somewhere near 10 billion tons of salt. Below the flat salt crust is lithium. By essentially trenching through the salt layer and pumping fresh water into it a brine starts to develop. When this brine is allowed to dry in the sun it takes on an olive oil tint. That's the lithium. But, there is only one problem.

Bolivia's experience with foreigners from capitalist countries mining gold and silver in the past has left them with a bad taste in their mouths. The precious metals were taken on the cheap, and the mining damaged the environment. Leaders in Bolivia have pledged not to allow foreign capital investment to OWN mines anymore. They may in the future entertain the idea of having partners, but the ownership and control of their lithium mines will be theirs. A small Bolivian operation has now started, with development planned for the future.

Another drawback is the fact that huge amounts of water are required to process the lithium. The triangle is arid and doesn't have as much water as many other places. In addition to possible contamination, the amount of water used may affect the availability of clean drinking water.

The Future of Lithium

Experts foresee a time when lithium batteries will replace the petroleum we use for powering cars and many other things. Banks of lithium batteries have been contemplated for providing household electricity. Their reliability will increase with time. The prevalence of the use of lithium-ion batteries has become widespread.

In May 2011, A123 Systems, a company in Massachusetts, announced it had built a 12-volt lithium auto battery that would fit in the same space as the normal lead-acid
batteries we commonly use now. It will be longer-lasting, lighter, and more friendly environmentally. Recently announcements have been made indicating that another lithium-ion battery has been developed that can offer a cheaper alternative and the necessary power for the total propulsion of cars. The spectre of affordable electric vehicles with a 100 plus mile range has been exciting engineers at GM, Toyota, and Nissan. The average range of electric cars in the U.S. is expected to be 222 miles in 2022.

Satellite images of the Salar del Hombre Muerto, Argentina (left), and Uyuni, Bolivia (right), salt flats that are rich in lithium. The lithium-rich brine is concentrated by pumping it into solar evaporation ponds.

Satellite images of the Salar del Hombre Muerto, Argentina (left), and Uyuni, Bolivia (right), salt flats that are rich in lithium. The lithium-rich brine is concentrated by pumping it into solar evaporation ponds.

Safety in Mining Lithium

In the lithium triangle (Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia), officials believe that even though mining lithium is less environmentally hazardous than mining coal, it is
possible to mine it in a way that makes it one of the least contaminating of mining operations.

Breathing in lithium can cause your nose and throat to become irritated, while longer, deeper inhalation can actually cause pneumonia. Touching lithium can also be a "touchy" matter. Lithium reacts with water quickly to form compounds that can burn the skin.


There are pros and cons to everything. Electric power solutions vary depending on need. Manufacturers who need energy storage must consider a wealth of factors in determining whether a lead-acid or lithium-ion battery is best suited for an application. Cost, lifetime, size, weight, sensitivity to temperature extremes, and availability of construction materials are the primary considerations when deciding what type of battery to use.

Lithium-ion batteries are more economical in many cases, especially in hot climates even though they tend to be more expensive. Consumption of lithium compounds and chemicals, such as lithium carbonate in lithium batteries increased by 22% per year from 2000 to 2008, and there is no doubt that lithium metal and all of its varied compounds will increase lithium-ion battery demand in the future.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 John R Wilsdon


Andrew Stewart from England on February 14, 2018:

Wow, really enjoyed this article. I had no idea how versatile and useful lithium could be. Great hub!