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The metal lithium has become integral to our daily lives, due to its essential role as a battery material in electronic devices. Over the next several decades, the rising popularity of electric vehicles is expected to mean the demand for lithium will increase even more -- so companies that mine the metal are racing to improve their productivity. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.
It may not be quite the rush to stake a claim that drove old prospectors into early American mining camps, but Miles O'Brien reports on the intensifying quest to find and produce lithium, a metal that is becoming more central to our daily lives.
It's the latest in our series Breakthroughs on the Leading Edge of science.
We're standing on some lithium now, right?
It's there. You just can't really tell it on the surface. It's just a lot of red clay and dirt.
It's not gold in them thar hills, but Lamont Leatherman is convinced it's as good as it.
We're in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, between Charlotte and the Appalachian Mountains. It was February 2020, before the shutdown and the COVID precautions. Leatherman was laying the underground work for a lithium mine.
This is the spodumene, this greenish-gray mineral here.
Spodumene, the mineral is an important source of lithium, the lightest metal on Earth.
It's all over the place here, and Leatherman's company, Piedmont Lithium, has the cores to prove it.
There's a real nice crystal. You can see it's quite coarse.
The crystals in these cores are powering a revolution in electrification that began in 1991, when Sony rolled out the first consumer product powered by lithium ion batteries, a camcorder.
It's easy to forget what life was like before these light, energy-dense batteries existed.
Scenes like this are becoming commonplace in U.S. cities where cellular is available today.
Demand for the metal has grown as fast as the devices have shrunk, a sixfold increase since 1991.
But Lamont Leatherman's boss, Keith Phillips, is among those who say we haven't seen anything yet.
Demand is growing 20 percent a year for the next two decades for lithium. That's the consensus equitation.
So the world will need a lot of lithium from a lot of different places. And I'm just wildly bullish.
The driver of this steep demand curve?
We're building the cars as fast as we can.
Electric vehicles. So far, they have not surpassed internal combustion cars and trucks on cost and performance.
But that inflection point appears to be around the corner.
By the time we're in 2025, 70 percent of the demand of lithium will come from electric vehicle demand.
Glen Merfeld is chief technology officer at the Albemarle Corporation, one of the largest lithium producers in the world.
Electrified transportation energizes demand for lithium batteries by many orders of magnitude.
You need thousands of these, tens of thousands of a cell phone-size battery, to be equivalent to the amount of energy storage that you would find in an electric vehicle.
Albemarle headquarters sits near the site of one of the earliest lithium mines, Kings Mountain, only 10 miles from where we met Lamont Leatherman.
The quarry is closed. Albemarle now mines lithium rock in Australia and separates it from salty water in giant evaporation ponds in Nevada and Chile. Mining lithium at the old quarry is more expensive, but demand is rising so fast, there is talk of taking it out of mothballs in the coming years.
Meanwhile, the company is trying to wring out more efficiency in its processing facility.
So what's the airlock for. Why do we have it?
It's to keep moisture out of the room.
Lithium reacts to moisture.
All you have to do is breathe on lithium metal, and it oxidizes, making it useless to manufacturers.
Superintendent of the metals department Kyle Miller laid out their deliverables.
This would be a lithium ingot directly cast from primary metals.
So, that's the main thing right there?
Can I touch it?
Yes. Yes, as long as you have gloves.
And you will see how light it is.
Oh, wow. It's amazingly light. Wow. It's so light.
Right. It's amazingly light.
Right. That's one of the great properties of lithium.
You could see this right here, about how easily it bends.
The first lithium boom in the '50s was all about booms. It is used in triggers for nuclear bombs. It is also used to make tougher glass for cell phones, exotic aerospace alloys, and drugs for people with bipolar disorders. It is ideal for batteries because it is light and highly reactive.
Near Chicago, at the Argonne National Laboratory, they're pushing battery technology to the limit to make them safer and more efficient.
George Crabtree is director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research.
Lithium will react with almost anything. And it will give up its electrons so easily. It reacts with everything under the sun, including the things that you don't want it to react with.
One of the things it reacts with is ordinary water. Throw lithium into a pan of water, and it will catch on fire.
This is why the FAA banned lithium batteries in the cargo holds of passenger airliners. Despite the shortcomings, scientists say lithium is still by far the best material for batteries. But that doesn't stop them from looking for something better.
Venkat Srinivasan is director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Science.
So, batteries are all about finding new materials.
We have to go check and see if this material is going to be actually useful in a battery setting. So, what we would do is, we would make these small devices. It looks a lot like these are the coin cells that you might have seen used in your watches and things of that nature.
Then new small batteries are tested to see how well they perform, how fast they charge, and how many times they can be discharged before they are exhausted.
The promising ones are scaled up to consumer size.
We make large-format batteries, so that we can start to look at cells that look like what real-world companies would make.
All this work has led to many years of steady increases in battery performance and reductions in cost.
This could change the face of transportation, but will there be enough lithium to fuel a new electrified era?
So, if you ask the question, is there enough lithium in the world for 50 percent of the cars in the world to become electric, the answer is, maybe surprisingly, no. There isn't, unless you recycle.
Unlike lead acid batteries, there is no practical way to recycle those made of lithium.
Here at Argonne, they are working on that problem as well. As demand for electric vehicles rises, so will the need for a recycling solution. But, in the meantime, the lithium rush is on here in the spodumene-laced hills near Charlotte.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Bessemer City, North Carolina.
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Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
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