Lithium:The Oil Of The 21st Century

Today, most of our vehicles and electric power plants run on fuels that come from petroleum. The supply of these fuels will end a few decades from now. So what would power our cars and homes? The answer may be lithium.

Oil in the 20th century
Let’s understand the role of oil better in our times. In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler & Wilhelm Maybach invented a car engine that ran efficiently on petrol. This made it cheaper to own and use cars. Soon people around the world were buying cars, trucks. Diesel-run buses and trains ferried thousands of people across hundreds of kilometres. Since everyone needed petrol and diesel, drilling oil wells and extracting petrol became a very big business, employing millions of people. Today, there is no country that can do without oil.

An electronic world
But oil is a limited resource, and it also contributes to global climate change. Hence, countries are looking for other means to produce electricity and run vehicles, which are cheap, eco-friendly and plentiful. Sunlight is one of them, wind another. Hydrogen can be used as a fuel to make electricity. But a new source of energy scientists are thinking of is lithium.

It is already used in lithium ion batteries, the kind that powers your laptops and mobile phones. These batteries are rechargeable, so even a small amount of lithium will go a long way. In the future, you may be driving electric cars powered by lithium ion batteries. The chemical also has special uses in nuclear power plants. As we add more electronic devices in our lives, and reduce oil-burning ones, we’re going to need hundreds of tonnes of it every year.

Getting rich with lithium
In the 20th century, countries that produced oil, like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Russia became very rich, as other countries depended on them for supplies. Similarly, China is getting rich by supplying rare earth minerals to many countries. So in the coming century, countries that have big deposits of lithium can hope to get rich too.

Bolivia holds about half of the world’s potential its supply. Next come Chile, Argentina and China. The Bolivian government has signed deals with countries including Japan, Korea and France to mine and export lithium. It plans to use this money to build hospitals, schools and battery-making factories, helping many millions of Bolivians escape poverty, malnutrition and ill-health. A big source of the metal has also been found in Afghanistan.

And we hope that this year – the international year of chemistry – we’ll come to know of more sources of this important element!