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NRES 439 Environment and Sustainable Development

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  • Lithium Extraction: A Potential Powerhouse Industry for the United States

    Electrical vehicles seem to be all the rage these days, with more car companies committing to their development and charging stations popping up all over the country. Much of the conversation around electric vehicles revolves around one key component: the battery. This is not for nothing, as the battery is the sole component that will determine the viability of electric vehicles on such a large scale. The future of batteries for electric vehicles is currently reliant on a stable supply of lithium, which is the most popular choice due to its remarkable properties. Lithium is an incredibly lightweight metal, but also has a very high electrochemical potential, meaning it is an excellent material for the use in anodes or cathodes in batteries (in this case, anodes). Currently, the vast majority of lithium in the United States is imported from other countries and is not very recyclable. President Biden, however, has looked to make the United States a world leader in the production and recycling of lithium. The President and his administration are currently looking at the recycling of lithium from California’s geothermal power plants, including a $30 million investment into the development of the technology.. Simply put, geothermal power is derived from the steam generated from boiling water using the heat of the earth’s core. The wastewater from this process, however, presents a unique opportunity for recycling that could produce as much as 600,000 tons of lithium annually for the state. The brine-like wastewater contains various metals and compounds, including lithium, that could be extracted from the water and recycled for battery production. The 600,000 tons produced would not only bring $7 billion to the State of California annually, but the annual production would exceed current annual consumption, allowing for the surplus to be exported and generate additional revenue for the state. 

    This particular article touches upon many of the concepts we learned in class, but I thought this article highlighted the principles of the circular economy rather well. Minimizing waste and promoting recycling are core principles of the circular economy, and this initiative aims to incorporate those ideals into a blossoming industry that the United States could pioneer. Domestically sourced lithium could also offset significant emissions that would otherwise be emitted using conventional production methods. Not only this, but the initiative provides an excellent opportunity for capital growth in the state. Not only in the extraction of the lithium, but the refining of the lithium as well as the development and construction of batteries provide the opportunity for investors and capital to flow into new technologies. 

    With electric vehicles only increasing in popularity, the need for sustainably sourced electric vehicles will only continue to grow as well. The United States was blessed with a vast array of resources at our disposal, and I think it would be a poor decision not to capitalize on them, lithium included.