When a USGS colleague wandered into geology professor LeeAnn Munk’s UAA office one day and asked, “What do you know about lithium?” she had to honestly answer, “Not much.”
But that was just the question to launch a curious researcher like Munk, already interested in all things related to the geochemistry of ore deposits. She started reading and researching.
Most people know that lithium is ubiquitous in all those little gadgets and widgets we’ve grown to love and depend on. Lithium-ion batteries are the most efficient way to store, power and recharge the energy needed to run our laptops (maybe you’re using your Li-ion battery to view this article right now?), cameras, smartphones and even hybrid, battery-powered automobiles. (Imagine: It takes 100 laptop-sized batteries to power a hybrid car.)
Lithium is considered a critical element, both for technological advancement and also for national security. It didn’t take Munk long to locate a funding opportunity that could help extend her knowledge. It came in the form of a $70,000 grant from the USGS Mineral Resource External Research Program (MRERP) to explore lithium brine deposits.
First steps: where and how
In the United States, the only lithium brine in production is located in Clayton Valley, Nev. Munk, with help from undergraduate researcher Hillary Jochens and University of Utah colleague Scott Hynek, worked there over the course of three years. Her goal was to identify which rocks lithium turns up in and to understand what geochemical processes might be at work to help concentrate this valuable metallic element.
To date, they’ve identified potential sources of lithium in the basin and are building a knowledge base to understand the relevant processes that concentrate and replenish the brine with lithium.
But that’s barely half the story, as Munk explains:
“The overarching question is how sustainable are lithium brines as a source for the metal? How old are they? How long do they take to regenerate?”
She suspects the brines could be hundreds of thousands of years in the making. So during that timeframe, did the brine go through some evaporative process that further concentrated it? And what role do geothermal sources play?
Another important question related to sustainability is what happens as the lithium brine gets pumped out of the ground and into drying beds to isolate the salts for lithium processing. Does fresh water flow into the salty brine and change its character? Can pumping lithium brines deplete or change them forever?
Shifting to Chile
At Clayton Valley in Nevada, Munk built her collaborative research with Hynek and together they pursued establishing a research effort on the lithium brines of South America, in particular Chile.
The highest lithium concentration brine is being produced from a large salt flat called Salar de Atacama, located in the vast Atacama Desert running 600 miles along the Pacific coast from Peru to northern Chile. A feature in National Geographic calls the Atacama “the driest place on earth” where some locations haven’t received any rain since the beginning of recorded time.
Wikipedia reports that this salar contains 27 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. Lithium is the lightest metal found in the Earth and the third element on the Periodic Table.
The Chile location is being worked by Rockwood Lithium and SQM, chemical companies extracting lithium from the salty, subterranean brines. A video on the Rockwood Lithium website reports that over the last few years it has been pushing its facility to capacity to meet ever-increasing world demand for lithium.
Here, wells pump the brines to the surface where they fill large, shallow evaporation ponds. According to NASA, the dry and windy desert climate enhances evaporation of the water, leaving concentrated salts behind perfect for extracting lithium. This is a more modern, more environmentally friendly way to extract the metal than traditional mining methods.
Second grant focuses the sustainability question
Rockwood Lithium is providing two years of financial support to cover research work both at Clayton Valley and Salar de Atacama. Munk and her collaborators visited Atacama last January and again in March. Jochens, who graduates this fall and then begins an interdisciplinary master’s degree under Munk, went along. They will return this September for additional fieldwork.
Munk hopes her scientific work will help industry develop a global model for locating lithium deposits accurately and effectively, and answer the question of how sustainable the lithium brines are.
Already her work has turned up details about lithium brines that her sponsoring company didn’t realize. While under contract, her findings are proprietary. But after she completes the contract, she’ll be able to publish her findings in scientific journals on behalf of UAA.
Undergraduate research opportunities
Munk is excited to be working on a problem so essential to our way of life.
“We divvy up research work into ‘basic’ and ‘applied,’” she says. “I really like the applied side of things. It’s very satisfying for me to see an immediate result. It always ends up positive, even if we discover things that don’t necessarily help the business. They end up with an expanded knowledge base that’s helpful going forward.”
But another favorite aspect is the opportunity to work with undergraduates, like Jochens, bringing them into the world of science research.
“I could do science anywhere, really,” Munk says. “But you only get to work with students at a university. Here, I am able to provide research opportunities for undergraduates.”
Munk smiles when she thinks back to her own undergraduate years. She had always been friendly to science, but which one to choose? As a college freshman at 18 and just two weeks into “Introduction to Geology,” she knew she’d found it.
“I like to solve problems about the Earth through the tools of chemistry and geology,” she said. “You get to do it outside,” an important point for a farm girl who grew up out of doors, “and you get to use modern technology to address pressing problems.”
She, too, had been the happy recipient of an undergraduate research opportunity at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin.
“It’s what got me into graduate school,” Munk says. “It just enhances an education so much.”