The lithium ion Li+ administered as any of several lithium salts has proved to be useful as a mood-stabilizing drug due to neurological effects of the ion in the human body. Lithium and its compounds have several industrial applications, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, high strength-to-weight alloys used in aircraft, lithium batteries and lithium-ion batteries. These uses consume more than half of lithium production.
Since the end of World War II lithium production has greatly increased. The metal is separated from other elements in igneous minerals such as those above. Lithium salts are extracted from the water of mineral springs, brine pools and brine deposits. The metal is produced electrolytically from a mixture of fused lithium chloride and potassium chloride. In 1998 it was about 95 US$ / kg (or 43 US$/pound).
Lithium is produced from either hard rock pegmatite (spodumene crystals) or from salar brines (salt lakes). The two processes are drastically different with one being the traditional mining and ore processing with rare metals credits, while the other is more solution evaporation ponds. In recent years there’s also been discoveries of lithium in clay hectorite, however the commercial viability of this type of deposit is yet to be proven.
Deposits of lithium are found in South America throughout the Andes mountain chain. Chile is the leading lithium producer, followed by Argentina. Both countries recover the lithium from brine pools. In the United States lithium is recovered from brine pools in Nevada. However, half the world’s known reserves are located in Bolivia, a nation sitting along the central eastern slope of the Andes. In 2009 Bolivia is negotiating with Japanese, French, and Korean firms to begin extraction. According to the US Geological Survey, Bolivia’s Uyuni Desert has 5.4 million tonnes of lithium.
Worldwide reserves of lithium are estimated to be 23 million tonnes. Using the battery efficiency figure of 400 g of lithium per kWh, this gives a total maximum lithium battery capacity of 52 billion kWh which, assuming it is used exclusively for car batteries, is enough for approximately 2 billion cars with a 24 kWh battery (like a Nissan Leaf).