Monday, August 28, 2017

New Source of Energy-critical Lithium Found in Supervolcanoes, Stanford Researchers Find

Stanford researchers detail a new method for locating lithium in lake deposits from ancient supervolcanoes, which appear as large holes in the ground that often fill with water to form a lake, such as Crater Lake in Oregon, pictured here. (Image credit: Lindsay Snow / Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
Most of the lithium used to make the lithium-ion batteries that power modern electronics comes from Australia and Chile.  But Stanford scientists say there are large deposits in sources right here in America: supervolcanoes.

In a study published today in Nature Communications, scientists detail a new method for locating lithium in supervolcanic lake deposits.  The findings represent an important step toward diversifying the supply of this valuable silvery-white metal, since lithium is an energy-critical strategic resource, said study co-author Gail Mahood, a professor of geological sciences at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

“We’re going to have to use electric vehicles and large storage batteries to decrease our carbon footprint,” Mahood said.  “It’s important to identify lithium resources in the U.S. so that our supply does not rely on single companies or countries in a way that makes us subject to economic or political manipulation.”

Supervolcanoes can produce massive eruptions of hundreds to thousands of cubic kilometers of magma — up to 10,000 times more than a typical eruption from a Hawaiian volcano. They also produce vast quantities of pumice and volcanic ash that are spread over wide areas. They appear as huge holes in the ground, known as calderas, rather than the cone-like shape typically associated with volcanoes because the enormous loss of magma causes the roof of the chamber to collapse following eruption.

The resulting hole often fills with water to form a lake — Oregon’s Crater Lake is a prime example.  Over tens of thousands of years, rainfall and hot springs leach out lithium from the volcanic deposits.  The lithium accumulates, along with sediments, in the caldera lake, where it becomes concentrated in a clay called hectorite.

Exploring supervolcanoes for lithium would diversify its global supply.  Major lithium deposits are currently mined from brine deposits in high-altitude salt flats in Chile and pegmatite deposits in Australia.  The supervolcanoes pose little risk of eruption because they are ancient.

“The caldera is the ideal depositional basin for all this lithium,” said lead author Thomas Benson, a recent PhD graduate at Stanford Earth, who began working on the study in 2012.

New Source of Energy-critical Lithium Found in Supervolcanoes, Stanford Researchers Find

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