Lithium. No, this column of the famous Nirvana song is not about, but one of the most important elements in the global economy in the 21st century, due to its indispensable use in vehicle batteries and for all kinds of electronic devices. The interest and demand for lithium grows exponentially, and now more, once the large automotive companies have announced that they will stop producing internal combustion vehicles between 2025 and 2035, to focus on full electrification. Let us remember that electric vehicles are more energy efficient, simpler and with much fewer moving parts, and, therefore, easier to maintain, with greater torque and power, and cheaper to operate. They will soon have price parity with internal combustion vehicles. Lithium is used in lithium-ion batteries (also called Li-Ion) as an electrolyte in the form of a lithium salt that provides the ions necessary for the reversible electrochemical reaction that takes place between the cathode and the anode of the battery itself, and that allows the storage and supply of electrical energy. It is the most efficient battery that exists today, recyclable, with the highest energy storage capacity per unit of weight and volume.

Lithium is an alkali metal that is always associated with other minerals such as manganese, calcium, potassium, chlorides and sulfates. It is present in pegmatites and brines, and to a lesser extent in return water from oil wells and geothermal fields, and dissolved in sea water. In brines it is produced by solar evaporation and concentration in large ponds in salt flats and desiccated saline lakes; and it is the lowest cost procedure. Pegmatites are hard rocks of both sedimentary and igneous origin, and lithium is extracted from them through calcination, grinding, leaching with sulfuric acid, and precipitation; it is a more expensive and less common option. Soon, the direct extraction of lithium from reverse osmosis of brines will be commercially viable.

The largest known deposits are in Bolivia (Salar de Uyuni), northern Argentina, Chile (Salar de Atacama), the United States, Australia, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Canada. Inventories in Mexico have yet to be specified, but there are exploration activities in Baja California, Sonora, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. Currently around 360 thousand tons of lithium per year are produced in the world. The largest producers are Chile, Australia, China and Argentina. Chile is the most important, with around 150 thousand tons per year, and it does so through private concession companies that leave the Chilean State with juicy royalties.

In both brine and pegmatite operations, lithium is concentrated, extracted, and purified, then precipitated as lithium carbonate. Generally from there it is transformed into lithium bromides or chlorides, lithium hydroxide or metallic lithium for its application in batteries as an electrolyte. It must be said that its production is expensive and technologically complex, even more so because each brine is different in its mineral composition and physicochemical properties.

But the biggest problem for lithium production is political, as shown by the case of Bolivia, where the government of Evo Morales decided to nationalize it. And it is a failure. It only has a small artisanal pilot plant where less than 600 tons are produced per year. The government of President López in Mexico intends to follow that example, with its intention to nationalize lithium in its energy counter-reform proposal. In addition, he does everything possible to block the mining industry, and allocates the resources of his government to promote fossil fuels through subsidies or tax benefits, and infrastructure of soon obsolescence such as the construction of an absurd refinery in Dos Bocas and the purchase of the Deer Park refinery in Texas. Reversing the backwardness and regression, and the enormous patrimonial damage to the nation that this implies, will take many years.


Gabriel Quadri de la Torre

Civil Engineer and Economist

Green Seriously

Politician, liberal environmentalist and Mexican researcher, he has served as a public official and activist in the private sector. He was a candidate of the Nueva Alianza party for President of Mexico in the 2012 elections.

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