The vast majority of lithium is currently extracted from brine deposits in salt flats through a process known as evaporation. This method is relatively simple and relatively cheap, but it has its limitations. For example, brine deposits are not evenly distributed worldwide, and evaporation is dependent on specific environmental conditions. This can lead to variations in the quality and quantity of lithium produced, which can impact the price of the element.
To overcome these limitations, scientists and researchers are developing new extraction techniques for lithium metal. One of the most promising techniques being developed is directly extracting lithium metal from ores, such as spodumene. This process involves crushing the ore, roasting it to remove impurities, and then leaching it with acid to release the lithium. This method has the potential to produce high-quality lithium metal consistently.
Another innovative method of lithium extraction is through geothermal brines. Geothermal power plants use the heat from the Earth's core to generate electricity, but they also produce a significant amount of wastewater, which is rich in minerals. This includes lithium, which can be extracted through a process known as selective adsorption. This method involves filtering the wastewater through specialized materials that attract the lithium ions, leaving behind the other minerals. Selective adsorption allows high-quality lithium extraction at a lower cost than traditional evaporation techniques.
A third promising method of extracting lithium is through the use of microbes. Researchers have discovered microbes that can break down lithium-containing minerals and release the lithium into solution. This method has the potential to be both cost-effective and environmentally friendly, as it does not require the use of harsh chemicals or high temperatures. However, this method is still experimental, and more research is needed to determine its viability on a large scale.
As the demand for lithium continues to grow, developing new and innovative extraction techniques is crucial. Direct extraction from ores, selective adsorption from geothermal brines, and the use of microbes offer exciting possibilities for producing high-quality lithium metal in an environmentally sustainable way. With these new techniques being developed, the future of lithium extraction looks bright.