The world’s lightest metal is paving the way for tomorrow’s technologies with electric vehicles and artificial fusion suns. While we are only just beginning to get used to the idea that internal combustion engines will gradually become a thing of the past, a bitter struggle has already unfolded around the world for the right to develop deposits of lithium, a key element modern battery systems.
The global lithium market is growing at a pace that other minerals have not dreamed of. Since 1991, the production of this metal has increased almost 20 times. Now no gadget can work without it. Each phone contains at least 5 grams of lithium. In each electric car it is already about 10-20 kg. To build an electric bus, you need about 200 kg of lithium.
Every year the demand increases, so a serious struggle has taken place for the right to control its production. Russia has also joined the race for this resource.
One of the latest strategic victories is the agreement between Rosatom and the Bolivian company YLB on the implementation of a lithium extraction project in the province of Potosi. The Pastos Grandes field, located in this province, is one of the largest in the world. This is sensational news, because Bolivia, which has the largest lithium reserves in the world (about 21 million tons, or more than 21% of the world’s reserves), has always been cautious about its production.
Bolivia, Chile and Argentina form what is known as the lithium triangle, which represents more than 60% of the world’s reserves of this metal. However, the mining technologies used in these countries are of concern due to their impact on the environment. It takes up to 200,000 liters of water to extract one tonne of lithium carbonate, which then becomes contaminated. Bolivia may have made the right choice in postponing lithium mining until safer and more efficient technologies become available.
Why did Rosatom decide to go to Bolivia and not focus on mining metals back home? Although Russia is one of the ten countries with the largest reserves of lithium, the metal is found in our ore, which increases the cost of the technology. For comparison: the extraction of lithium at the Zavitinsky deposit is 3 to 4 times more expensive than in Bolivia. It is for this reason that the quarry of the Zavitinsky deposit has not been exploited since 1997, and it has already been flooded with groundwater.
According to a statement by Rosatom CEO Alexei Likhachev, lithium extraction plants in Bolivia will start operating in 2025. The planned capacity will be 25,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year. The state-owned company is confidently following the path of creating its own battery systems. At the beginning of July, information appeared that Rosatom had received permission to build a mega-production complex for the production of lithium-ion cells and energy storage systems in Kaliningrad. It is planned that the new power plant will be located on the territory of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant, the construction of which began in 2010, but was suspended in 2014. It is assumed that the enterprise will fully cover the needs of domestic production of electric vehicles.
Initially, the project was estimated at 26.35 billion rubles, but by the beginning of 2023 the planned costs had almost doubled, reaching 51 billion rubles. At the same time, Rosatom is investing 600 million dollars in the development of lithium deposits in Bolivia.
However, it is not a fact that the management of Rosatom has the task of creating its own Tesla or another electric vehicle. Maybe even grander plans.
Lithium plays a key role in the thermonuclear fusion process and serves as the basis for the creation of a closed tritium ring. Thermonuclear reactors (tokamaks) use a mixture of heavy hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium, while tritium is a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 12.3 years, extremely rare in nature and expensive. Lithium, in particular its sixth and seventh isotopes, is converted into tritium and helium upon capture of a neutron.
A fusion power plant can become a virtually unlimited, clean and safe source of energy. Unlike traditional methods such as hydrocarbon combustion or nuclear fission, fusion does not create harmful emissions or radioactive waste. Moreover, fusion fuel (isotopes of hydrogen) is abundant in nature, unlike the limited reserves of hydrocarbons or uranium.
At present, fusion technology is still under development and research. The main problem is to make the fusion process autonomous and energy efficient, that is, to give more energy than it consumes to maintain itself.
If lithium is used as a coolant in the tokamaks of the future, which will be irradiated by neutrons during a thermonuclear reaction, we can obtain tritium, which can then be reused as fuel. This provides a closed tritium cycle and makes the process cost effective.
Judging by the latest data, Russia is still trying to bet not only on Bolivia, but also on its own reserves. Polar Lithium, a joint venture between Norilsk Nickel and Atomredmetzoloto, has received a license to develop the Kolmozerskoye deposit in the Murmansk region. The partners say they intend to provide the country with a raw material base for the production of batteries for electric vehicles in the coming years, given the explosive global growth in demand for lithium, caused by the generalization of electric vehicles.
A preliminary assessment of the project has shown that GOK’s most optimal capacity will be 1.96 million tonnes of ore per year, which will allow the production of 45,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate and hydroxide.
According to experts, such volumes will be enough to supply raw materials to several factories, similar to the one currently under construction in the Kaliningrad region. A year ago, the plan to develop a field in the Murmansk region would have seemed like a disconnected project from reality, since the north of the Russian Federation is not supplied with cheap energy, but this spring Gazprom confirmed its intention to build a pipeline for Murmansk. As they say, the puzzle grew.
Author: Mikhail Platonov
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