If the 19th century was the age of coal and the 20th the age of oil, the 21st century is starting to look like the age of lithium. A metal so soft it can be cut with a steel knife and for years known for its role treating bipolar disorder, lithium has quietly become the most important metal for several important industries — electronics, electric vehicles and renewable energy — because of its importance to energy storage. Rechargeable lithium ion batteries are now in everything, but have become indispensable to efforts to fight climate change.
Because renewable energy is often generated at different times from when demand is greatest, storage is a necessity (conventional plants can increase power output to meet demand, up to a point) and most of the time, this means lithium batteries. Similarly, electric vehicles use lithium batteries, helping to decarbonize transportation tailpipe emissions. Currently, most EVs are high end, luxury cars, but in the future it’s likely that trucks, police cars, firetrucks, ambulances and even some military vehicles will be battery-electric. Manufacturers are already experimenting with battery electric aircraft in a bid to reduce emissions from that sector. Meanwhile the multibillion dollar electronics industry continues to rely on lithium batteries.
But despite its relative abundance in the Earth’s crust, commercially exploitable lithium is relatively rare. Around 75 percent is believed to be in salt flats in South America. Interest is also growing in spodumene, a lithium-bearing mineral more widely distributed around the world, and extracting it from sea water. But the demand for lithium is only expected to grow. To make things complicated, rising tensions between the United States, its allies and China, as well as a desire for the former to support domestic industry, are expected to lead to increased competition for lithium supplies. In 2018, the