Supervolcanoes could hold the key to powering the next generation of phones and electric cars

Electric vehicles (EVs) are often lauded as the virtuous green alternative to conventional forms of (fossil-fuel-powered) transportation. If you’ve ever commuted in London on a bicycle, you’ll know why. But their virtues tend to be somewhat exaggerated, with sceptics voicing environmental qualms about their lithium-ion batteries, which tend to be mined from sites in Australia and Chile.

Supervolcanoes could hold the key to powering the next generation of phones and electric cars

Alas, as the demand for EVs (and other lithium-powered devices such as mobile phones) increases, the global supply of lithium depletes, and environmentally disruptive measures have to be enacted in order to withdraw the mineral from the ground. In other words, if we want to maintain good practice when it comes to renewable energy, we’ve got to find new ways of sourcing lithium.


Enter scientists from Stanford University, who have just published a study in Nature Communications detailing how lithium can be extracted from supervolcano craters. Researchers have been examining the contents of craters left by gargantuan supervolcanoes that erupted throughout the US millions of years ago. The team sampled and analysed crystals in the craters, discovering volcanic magma that housed the silvery-white mineral.

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The research is in a relatively nascent stage, so it’s not yet clear whether the practice is more environmentally sound than current means of extraction. Nonetheless, it means that the EV revolution – and with it the (incremental) marginalisation of fossil fuels – won’t be halted due to a lithium shortage. “The demand for lithium has outpaced the scientific understanding of the resource, so it’s essential for the fundamental science behind these resources to catch up,” said lead author of the study Thomas Benson. “Now we have a way to easily find more of these lithium deposits.”


(Source: Nature Communications)

The discovery also heralds a strategic economic win for the US. “We’re going to have to use electric vehicles and large storage batteries to decrease our carbon footprint,” says Gail Mahood, Stanford professor of geological sciences and co-author of the study. “It’s important to identify lithium resources in the US so that our supply does not rely on single companies or countries in a way that makes us subject to economic or political manipulation.”

Strategic gains aside, the production of EVs, and the corresponding necessity for greater lithium reserves, doesn’t appear to be ceasing. Volvo, for example, recently pledged that it would only produce hybrid and electrically powered models of its cars starting in 2019, becoming the poster child for the green energy revolution. Meanwhile, despite the Samsung Note 7 debacle, lithium batteries continue to proliferate in phones and laptops. In this light, the discovery that supervolcanoes (vast, untapped) constitute an alternative source of lithium comes as a welcome – not to mention needed – development.

Examining rocks, eh? Turns out it wasn’t just something your geography teachers enforced on field trips so that they could go to the pub. The practice might just have saved the planet from a smoggy demise.

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