If you open up your mobile phone or laptop or iPad, you'll find a lithium battery. If you own a hybrid or electric car, it's likely powered by a lithium battery as well. Lithium is a metal that's light and cheap, and it is increasingly the material of choice for battery makers.
Lithium could, in the future, replace a lot of the oil we now use for energy — which raises questions about how much we can realistically rely on the metal. Seth Fletcher, senior editor at Popular Science, explores this in a new book, called Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy.
"You have to store metallic lithium in oil, otherwise it tarnishes," Fletcher explains to NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Actually, it's so volatile it doesn't exist in nature in its pure form. So if you're mining for lithium, you never find big arm-sized veins of lithium metal because they just don't exist."
Most of the world's lithium, Fletcher says, comes from a series of salt lakes in a high-altitude region where Bolivia, Chile and Argentina meet. It's called the "lithium triangle."
"Over the years, the water has absorbed minerals and settled in these giant salt sponges, and now there's this rich brine," he says.
When the water evaporates, it leaves behind an olive oil-like substance that has a small percentage of lithium, which is then processed into lithium carbonate, a white powder. And according to Fletcher, there's more than enough to meet the rising demand.
"I don't know of any serious person in the automotive industry or in the lithium industry who believed that there is a serious, long-term supply problem," he says. "In fact, for the next 10 years there will probably be an oversupply of lithium because so many companies have now moved into the market."
And unlike the impact of mining other natural resources, concentrating lithium is an "environmentally benign" process, Fletcher says. "It's about as low-impact as mining can get. They're really just pumping water up ... and there are really no toxic chemicals in a lithium-ion battery."
'A Gaping Hole In The Grid'
Using lithium batteries can also boost the efficiency of how we store energy — say, from a wind farm or a bank of solar cells, Fletcher says.
"What a lot of companies are working on right now is building gigantic banks of lithium-ion batteries that can store energy from power plants," he says. "Right now we don't store energy effectively at all. That's a big gaping hole in the grid right now."
A limiting factor to the batteries, however, is the amount they can store and how quickly they can be recharged. While companies work to produce better lithium batteries, Fletcher argues, people should take advantage of the current uses.
"Batteries are going to get better, but we don't have a battery that can power a car for 500 miles and then recharge in 15 minutes," he says. "It's going to be a long time before we have that battery, but the batteries we do have right now can do a lot of incredibly useful things, and they can do them very efficiently and affordably. I think we would be wise to use them to do those things while we're simultaneously developing future chemistries that maybe could power a car 500 miles and recharge in 15 minutes."