Folks around the world are prospecting for a soft, silvery metal. They’re not carrying pickaxes and panning for gold, but their fervor is nearly the same as those gold diggers of yesteryear. Yeeee-haaaawww! There’s a lithium rush on!
Lithium is a highly flammable and extremely light chemical element. The naturally occurring substance is an ingredient in some medicines. It’s also in glass, lubricants, steel, aluminum—and most popularly, in certain kinds of batteries. Lithium’s low weight makes it ideal for cell phones, laptops, and other portable technology.
Lithium and lithium-ion batteries (the first is not rechargeable; the second is) can power energy-gobbling devices faster and longer than other types. Today, lithium batteries make up about one-third of the entire battery market.
Perhaps the biggest demand for lithium is for electric car batteries. As electric cars gain popularity—and tech devices sell by the gazillion, demand for lithium goes up.
Australia, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia produce much of the world’s lithium. Most comes from the rocks and groundwater near volcanoes.
Catherine Hickson is a volcanologist. She’s worked with and around lithium for years. In an online interview, Hickson explains how a volcano produces lithium. She says that following an eruption, tons of lithium-containing ash settle on the ground. Rain washes the ash into the soil, and lithium leaches into the groundwater and volcanic clay. Often lithium stores reside in volcanic craters called calderas.
Scientists believe America is literally sitting on top of several large lithium deposits near supervolcanoes. Supervolcanoes don’t look like regular volcanoes. They’re not mountains with lava holes at the top. They’re huge calderas. Supervolcanoes once produced very large eruptions. Now they’re believed to be inactive.
The United States has five supervolcano sites: Yellowstone (Idaho), Long Valley (California), Crater Lake (Oregon), La Garita (Colorado), and Valles Caldera (New Mexico). Good news, right? Maybe not—yet. According to geologist LeeAnn Munk, “There’s really no existing [economical] technology at a big enough scale to actually mine the lithium out of the clays.” So even if America has loads of lithium, it may not be available quickly or cheaply.
There’s another hiccup in the hype: Some scientists are already moving on from lithium.
Take 94-year-old J.B. Goodenough. He’s developing a “glass battery.” It could generate three times the energy of a lithium one. Two years ago, Goodenough said he had “one more idea” that could help solve some of the lithium woes. He should know. He’s the scientist who brought us the lithium-ion battery.