Why Seawater Isn’t the Answer to the Lithium Squeeze

Seawater: It offered the Ancient Mariner not a drop to drink, but plenty of scientists and entrepreneurs have ideas for how to use the salty stuff for green technologies. Some aim to desalinate it with high-tech membranes to produce fresh drinking water, while others envision it providing irrigation for salt-loving plants to be used as feedstock for biofuels. Add to the list South Korea’s ambitious plan, reported Tuesday by the Financial Times, to collect lithium from sea water for electric car batteries.
According to a release from the South Korean government, its Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs plans to jointly invest 30 billion won (about $26.4 million) with steel giant POSCO (s PKX) into the technology. Together with the Korea Institute of Geo-science and Mineral Resources, they plan to develop the tech and set up a plant (with capacity to produce 20,000-100,000 tons of lithium) by 2015. The hope, according to the release, is to “not only meet domestic demand but dominate the global lithium market.”  

“If the price of lithium does go high enough, it theoretically is possible to extract lithium from seawater,” Brian Jaskula, the U.S. Geologicical Survey’s mineral commodity specialist on lithium told us in an email today. “Just about every element in the periodic table is available in seawater. It’s just that its a very expensive way of extracting metals and minerals,” he explained.
Mitsubishi has estimated that demand for lithium — which now costs less than a dollar per kilogram — will outstrip supply as early as 2015, and Jaskula told us last year that he expected demand to begin driving lithium prices up in the next 10-15 years. But high costs make it unlikely that schemes to pull lithium from seawater will succeed in the near future, Jaskula said.
According to Financial Times, researchers who worked on a seawater project in Japan for some 30 years concluded the technology was five times too expensive to commercialize. South Korea’s land, transport and maritime ministry claims it has a technology that’s 30 percent more efficient than the Japanese tech.
The ministry says it has promoted development of what’s called marine dissolved lithium abstraction technology since 2000. But the race for new lithium reserves has heated up over the last year. As the New York Times put it this afternoon, mining executives’ yawns over ho-hum lithium are suddenly “being replaced by eurekas” in anticipation of new demand from the electric vehicle sector.
The U.S. imports most of its lithium from Chile and Argentina, while Bolivia (which has resisted giving up its resource to foreign miners) has more than half of the planet’s total lithium deposits in the brine beneath its salt flats.
Bolivia’s salt flats and the world’s seas however, don’t represent the only hope for meeting a growing lithium appetite, Jaskula noted. “Obtaining lithium from geothermal waters,” he said, “does have potential for success,” by way of contrast with the sea water option.
Jaskula pointed to a company called Simbol Mining that’s now “exploring the feasibility” of drawing lithium from geothermal sources, and the Times reports that some 60 mining firms are conducting feasibility studies, “that could potentially lead to more than $1 billion in new lithium projects” in Argentina, Nevada and Serbia over the next several years. “If successful,” said Jaskula, “there are a vast number of geothermal sources in the western United States that could be exploited.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dom H UK