Monday, February 6, 2023

Lithium, clean energy for some, environmental disaster for others

“Because the world demand for lithium has skyrocketed, it has become a strategic mineral and a subject of worldwide political interest. The presence of commercial interests is also seen in the manipulation of politics of some countries”, UNAM Radio Dr. Jane Arthur, a researcher at the Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, announced during her conference “Lithium: Se” on Monday afternoon. The Great Explosion for a Clean Energy Future”, as the first session of the Noticias del Cosmos cycle organized by El Colegio Nacional and coordinated by members Susana Lizano and Luis Felipe Rodríguez Jorge.

The expert also in sustainability and energy transition pointed out that worldwide use of lithium for energy storage, i.e. in the form of lithium hydroxide, jumped from capturing 27% of worldwide industrial requirements in 2011 to 65% in 2019.

Today’s typical electric car batteries contain 10 to 20 kilograms of lithium, he said. That’s 5,000 times more lithium than a cell phone.

And since the European Union and the United Kingdom have announced that by 2035 they are going to ban the manufacturing of conventional cars in that region, this is partly boosting the demand for lithium.

Another area that has seen exponential growth over the next decade, he explained, is stationary storage, which is linked to the generation of intermittent renewable energy such as wind and solar.

“Banks of lithium batteries are being built the size of a trailer, where the energy generated is not used immediately. Each of these large reserves holds about 700 kg of lithium.

deposited on the planet

The most famous terrestrial lithium deposits are in the salt flats of the Atacama Desert in South America, in the so-called Lithium Triangle on the border of the countries of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. In this case, the expert explained, the extraction of the element occurs by evaporating brine, which is then subjected to a photoevaporation process in ponds, a process that takes 18 to 24 months, but with a lower cost since the Sun in charge of “So this type of lithium extraction is relatively profitable because the investment is low.”

He pointed out that another type of deposits are hard rock mines which are mainly found in Australia. It is extracted with traditional mining techniques: extraction and pulverization. But the concentration of lithium in these sites is 10 times higher than in the brine. While the concentration in brine is about 0.1%, it is 1.6% in hard rock mines. “In terms of profitability, this type of deposit seems to be more viable, however, the process is quite expensive and requires a lot of energy.”

Finally, lithium accumulates in the soil. This is the deposit type found in the United States in areas such as Nevada; in Serbia and in Sonora, Mexico.

“These deposits have a relatively low concentration of lithium, less than 0.4%. Traditional methods are based on leaching, ie pouring acid into it, cooking it and then washing it away. This requires energy, toxic chemicals And lots of water is needed.” However, novel, patent-pending methods are being developed. One is from a group of Syninvestv in Saltillo, an electrical separation method that uses solar energy as part of the process. And the Tesla company also has a patent for a selective extraction method with the use of sodium chloride (table salt). But, he stressed, “there is still no profitable commercial process for this type of deposit in the world.”

Advantages and disadvantages of its extraction

Whether this is the ideal element for the energy transition or is it another possibility for environmental disaster, he said, is one of the great questions we must address in the world.

“The countries of the global north that are driving this energy transition are not the same countries that have lithium deposits. So lithium is clean energy for some and an environmental disaster for countries in the global south. Also, remember that Essentially the battery is not a fixed technology”.

Because of this dilemma, he explained, “new battery technologies and techniques are being sought all the time.” four times the energy density of lithium. This new technology is promising. This sodium-sulfur stack can be very useful for stationary storage. In applications that require large amounts of lithium, this type of battery can be used Lithium may continue to be used in very small amounts in portable devices.

issue in political context

Jane Arthur’s summit is given at the same time that the 2023 North American Leaders’ Summit is taking place in our country, among which the central issues to be addressed by the leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada were announced, climate change. and the presentation of Mexico’s plan for the production of clean energy, the technologies needed for batteries and the use of lithium.

About the speaker:

Jane Arthur completed her doctoral studies in applied mathematics at the University of Leeds, UK. She arrived in Mexico 30 years ago for a postdoctoral stay at UNAM’s Institute of Astronomy and is currently a researcher at the Higher House of Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics of the Morelia Campus of Studies. He has also devoted part of his work to the issues of sustainability and energy transition.

Learn more about Mexico:

Lithium, its versatility and where Mexico stands

Current uses of lithium:

  • 65% for energy storage
  • 18% in the ceramic and glass industry
  • 5% in applications such as industrial machinery lubricants
  • 5% other applications
  • 3% for the generation of polymers
  • 3% for making molds
  • 1% in the development of psychiatric drugs

Nation World News Desk
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