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Two New Lithium Discoveries Make The Renewable Energy Economy Just That Much Closer

The basic and essential problem with most renewable energy sources is that their output is not continuous. Solar doesn’t produce at night of course (notwithstanding those clever Spaniards who realised that shining floodlights on cells was profitable given the vast premium paid for solar electricity going into the grid over buying electricity from the grid) and wind power is famously variable even at 5 minute intervals. It’s going to be very, very, difficult running an industrial economy on such sources. Unless, that is, we can solve the problem of storing electricity.

And of course we can do that already: pumped hydropower, we know how to make batteries and fuel cells running on hydrogen can also be seen as a sort of battery. The problems here are that they’re all expensive and inefficient: we lose quite a lot of the electricity we want to store.

Two little stories that make me think that being able to do all of this economically is coming closer and closer. The first is what looks like a very interesting advance in battery technology:

A team from the University of Southern California (USC) has built a lithium battery that provides three times the power capacity of conventional designs, with a recharge time of just ten minutes and a predicted long life-span.

Sounds good and the secret is:

Many lithium batteries, particularly in the mobile space, use graphite as an anode but this has limited capacity. Silicon is an obvious replacement and works well, but suffers from performance issues after repeated charging cycles, so the team decided to see if nanotubes are more effective.

They were and that’s great.

The other little story is something personal from here in Central Europe where I’m working currently. A project that I’m vaguely involved with (very vaguely, they might have in their wastes something that I then want to process) has managed to work out an economic method of extracting lithium from one of the local minerals. It’s a mineral that absolutely no one at present uses, is here in the tens of millions of tonnes and indeed, there is certainly a good half a million tonnes of it already sitting in old mine dumps. Wastes from previous attempts to mine the area for other minerals.

The important point is that this method is economic at current prices. So if we do all start driving electric cars (or using those newer lithium batteries above) then we’ve got a second or third source of the lithium to make them from.


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