The Growing Importance of Lithium in the Alternative Energy Market


As the world looks to expand the use and production of alternative energy sources, new supporting technologies are required. The traditional electrical generation and engine combustion methods that rely on non-renewable sources of energy like coal and crude oil cannot be transferred to the new markets being established. We are now more aware of the effects of these fuels on the environment as well as their finiteness; renewable energy sources such as solar energy are moving fast to fill the gap. With solar panel installations on the rise and more people looking at cleaner electrical vehicles (EVs), energy storage technologies are becoming more and more important.

The Value of Energy Storage

Solar photovoltaic (PV) installations are increasing, and the market is set to double by 2023. Domestic and commercial users with solar PV installed can use the energy for various purposes. Water heating, lighting, and other systems and devices can be powered by this freely available energy from the sun. In many cases, this energy is used as it is generated. This limits the use to daytime or when the sun is out. Having a way to store the excess energy is immensely valuable and can lead to much savings on electricity from the grid. As solar batteries become cheaper, energy storage is going to be more widespread.

The EV industry is set to change the car market. These vehicles are much cleaner because they don’t burn fuel. They are also easier to maintain. EVs rely on electricity stored in their batteries. The greater the capacity of the battery, the further the vehicle can travel before it needs another charge. This is going to be a major issue until charging stations are more widely available.

Growing Uses of Lithium

Lithium is a very reactive alkali and the lightest of all the metals. Its compounds have various uses and can be found in ceramics, drying agents, air conditioning systems, and even in certain medicines. As a metal, lithium also finds use in alloys with magnesium and aluminum. These are utilized in plating and in vehicles such as trains, aircraft, and bicycles. The most important use of lithium, however, is in the battery market.

Lithium is found in both rechargeable batteries and in non-rechargeable batteries for devices such as toys and clocks. Rechargeable lithium batteries can be found in most major electronics. Mobile phones, digital cameras, and laptops all have these batteries that can be used over and over again after they are charged using electricity.

Two growing markets in particular in the clean energy and renewable energy sectors are using lithium batteries for energy storage—the EV and the solar PV markets. As detailed above, energy storage is a vital part of the clean energy chain, without which, there are significant limitations. All that is required, then, is a steady source of this useful metal.

Sources of Lithium

Lithium is not found in its metallic state in the ground. Instead, it is extracted from igneous rock, mineral springs, and from the oceans in combination with other atoms. Lithium from water sources, or brines, can be extracted using electrolysis in a cost-effective process. High concentrations of lithium deposits are found in underground reservoirs known as salars. Places where such deposits are found include Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Tibet, and China. These countries have the highest lithium levels on the planet. Lithium deposits are also found in medium levels in Nevada and California, while Utah has brines of lower concentrations.

Lithium is also obtained from hard-rock mining. Other countries with some of the highest natural resources of lithium are Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Portugal, DR Congo, and Russia, to name a few.

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