The soft silvery metal is a vital component of lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from your laptop to the car you drive. And as EVs take off, the demand for lithium—which comes from a few sites scattered across the globe—is skyrocketing.
But getting the metal out of the ground is no easy feat. As a result, producing one ton of the precious metal requires a lot of digging. And that’s assuming the concentration of lithium ore is high enough in the first place, which isn’t always the case. In places like Nevada’s Thacker Pass, where deadbeat cattle rancher Cliven Bundy recently staged an armed standoff over federal grazing fees, the concentration is only two-tenths of one percent. That means a single mine could consume up to 30 million tons of earth per year, more than the annual coal output of all but seven or eight U.S. states.
Lithium is a very reactive metal, meaning it’s difficult to extract from its natural mineral compounds as a pure metal. So most of it is found in salts that are much more stable and can be processed into chemicals or even batteries.
A team of researchers led by PNNL has developed a way to extract the metal more cheaply and efficiently. The scientists used incredibly thin strips of the metal to create an anode that can hold more charge and last longer than today’s best-in-class pouch cells. They published their results in Nature Energy.