Lithium batteries are dominating the battery industry. If you have a cell phone, a laptop, an iPad or an electric car, you are using lithium batteries to power them. According to Seth Fletcher, senior editor at Popular Science, Lithium could replace a lot of the oil we use in the future. Fletcher explores this idea in his book, Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and The New Lithium Economy. In an interview with NPR, Fletcher explained his theories on lithium logistics.
“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 and “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.”
Let us be clear about which lithium batteries we are discussing. There is a definite difference between lithium batteries and lithium ion batteries. According to a posted FAQ by greenbatteries.com, “There are several important differences. The practical difference between Lithium batteries and Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries is that most Lithium batteries are not rechargeable but Li-ion batteries are rechargeable. From a chemical standpoint Lithium batteries use lithium in its pure metallic form. Li-ion batteries use lithium compounds which are much more stable than the elemental lithium used in lithium batteries. A lithium battery should never be recharged while lithium-ion batteries are designed to be recharged hundreds of times.” I am sure Fletcher is discussing lithium ion batteries in his book, not lithium batteries.
Is Fletcher correct when he says there are really no toxic chemicals in a lithium-ion battery? According to greenanswers, “Lithium ion batteries are generally greener over their counterparts, nickel-cadmium, because they have less toxic metals.” Interestingly enough, no one except Mr. Fletcher is saying lithium-ion batteries are not toxic, just not AS toxic.
What is the future of the lithium ion battery? According to Mr. Fletcher’s book, “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.”
I would like to see more electric cars on the road. If they can make the batteries for these cars more efficient, with a longer running time and faster charging, we could see a lot less air pollution and less dependency on oil. Since I am now paying $4.25 for regular gas for my car, electric cars seem like an answer from heaven. What do you think? Are you leaning toward an electric car or at least a hybrid car for your next auto purchase?