Lithium: The promises and threats of the ‘white gold’

An Argentine group affiliated with the University of Buenos Aires and the National Research Council has developed a new technology to extract lithium. The Institute of Chemical Physics for Materials, Environment and Energy (Inquimae, by its Spanish acronym) is now runner-up in an international competition for startups in the United States, organized by Greentown Labs. This may be all it takes to revolutionize the extraction of this vital resource in our modern economy.

 The institute headed by Ernesto Calvo has developed a technology by which lithium is directly pumped into a reactor for processing. This is clean, faster, and more economical. Current extraction methods include primitive steaming systems that result in a massive waste of water. That, of course, is negative in itself. But in this case, this technology can be vital. Water is critical where vast reserves of lithium are currently found: Argentina’s Northeast; Chile’s North, and Bolivia’s South, mostly arid areas and deserts.

Lithium is a resource of choice to power batteries for its high-energy density and charge retention (among an array of disadvantages, too). As consumer electronics boom and electric cars are around the corner —with their lithium batteries— demand is set to soar.

Any country endowed with these resources would naturally seek to profit from them. It is no coincidence that lithium has been labelled “white gold”. That, too, gives us pause. The distortions introduced by oil —the “black gold”— in the politics and the economy of the largest crude producers and exporters should act as a cautionary tale.

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