A theme I ran into again and again while writing about the periodic table was the future of energy and the question of which element or elements will replace coal as the king. Plutonium seemed a sure winner in the 1950s and 1960s, today it conjures more horror than hope. As bleak outlook for climate change was clearly a couple of decades later, hydrogen, either in fusion or liquid fuel began to excite people as a substitute for oil. Enthusiasm subsided somewhat when the practical difficulties of creating and transporting hydrogen was clear.
Researchers have continued to tinker with the various elements and have learned new ways to store and deliver energy. Among the most promising candidate elements to emerge is the third element, lithium. Chevrolet, actually has staked its future on lithium batteries in the Chevy Volt, the electric car it is released in November.
Lithium makes a fine battery, because it is a scary reactive metals. Pure lithium ignites on contact, if it touches the water a flake of it would sizzle and fry in water-rich cells in the skin. Although lithium batteries (which do not contain pure lithium) can put you at risk. People's linty pockets have reportedly caught fire when the jangling keys or coins shorted batteries.
But the energetic also means that lithium, if properly channeled, can deliver lots of energy. And you can read, so right out of the periodic table. Elements are happiest when they have a complete set of electrons (the small, negatively charged bits that whirl around in atoms). Lithium sits in the first column of the table, which means that it has one electron more than a full set. Electrons are mobile, but as lithium happily leave the extra electron wander away and walked electrons is what we call electricity. Other features let electrons wander away, too, but lithium escape easier.
Lithium also sits on top of the table, which means that it weighs much less than traditional battery materials such as lead. This makes lithium batteries more portable. But unlike those two elements lighter than lithium, hydrogen and helium, lithium, forming a solid, not a gas at room temperature, making it easier to transport and store. In all, it is the perfect material for batteries, light and energetic.
Better yet, the world has plenty of lithium ore available, especially in the “A, B, C” Lithium South American countries-Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Bolivia in particular has large reserves in the Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat so great and dazzling white, that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spied it from the moon. (They thought it a glacier.) But it seems unlikely that Bolivia, with its president, Evo Morales, doing an impression of Hugo Chavez to demonize capitalism and nationalize the mines, can have a productive lithium mine up and running soon. Currently, Chile is a world leader in lithium production, refining a few million tons per year, most of it from lands it captured during nitric war with Bolivia and Peru in the 1880s. If the U.S. government's estimate of the enormous mineral wealth of Afghanistan are accurate, however, that the country could surpass Chile in lithium production in a few decades.
The Volt electric car will use the Chilean or Bolivian or Afghan ore in lithium batteries, which weigh about 375 pounds more than 70 percent lighter than the 1,200 lbs. batteries that powered previous generations of electric cars. So-called lithium-air batteries that are being developed will reduce weight further. But a couple of hundred pounds is still a lot of battery to drive a car, imagine what size you'd need to run a combine-and even the Volt will rely on gasoline for additional power.
For all its promise, and then lithium probably can not run our entire economy. We do not want to run everything on batteries all the time (changing them constantly would be annoying, for one thing), and we still need to generate energy to charge lithium batteries anyway. That is why lithium is far from the only element scientists bet to replace coal. But some of the elements that they obscure them hanging on the bottom of the periodic system is far knottier to extract and refine and pose far greater geopolitical problems in the U.S.. More on this in next post.