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Publication Date: 07/1/2010
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Enough Lithium for Everybody

The astonishing news that Afghanistan appears to have enormous stores of valuable minerals — especially lithium — has taken the scientific community by surprise.

Once upon a time, the principal use for lithium was as a medication to treat types of bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder. While it is still used medically, today it has become an important part of the electronics industry as the principal component in most of today's current rechargeable batteries. There is relatively little lithium available from natural sources in the U.S.; the world's largest known reserves until now have been in Bolivia and Chile, but Bolivia has produced little if any for the world market.

According to Wikipedia, lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. It is represented by the symbol Li, and it has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive and flammable. For this reason, lithium metal is typically stored in a petroleum derivative, such as mineral oil (in which it floats), or petroleum jelly in which it is held below the surface by the viscosity of the medium. When cut open, lithium exhibits a metallic luster, but contact with moist air corrodes the surface quickly to a dull silvery gray, then black tarnish.

Because of its high reactivity, lithium only appears naturally in the form of compounds. Lithium occurs in a number of pegmatitic minerals, but is also commonly obtained from brines and clays. On a commercial scale, lithium metal is isolated electrolytically from a mixture of lithium chloride and potassium chloride.

Old Soviet Reports
The discovery of the Afghan mineral deposits followed a circuitous course. There were engineering reports prepared by the Soviets during their occupation, but the reports were brushed aside and spirited into safe hiding places by Afghan geologists after the Soviet withdrawal. These reports came to light several years ago, and American geologists became involved.

Using the old Russian charts, the U.S. Geological Survey started to do its own testing in 2006, using an old Navy Orion P-3 aircraft with magnetic measuring equipment. The results were so good, that a new survey was made in 2007, using an old British bomber outfitted with the latest and greatest in geological survey gear. The team was able to produce 3D profiles of mineral deposits. American geologists were astonished by the results.

For some reason, all of these data were pretty much ignored until this year. New ground surveys by U.S. geologists on dry salt lakes revealed what appears to be huge deposits of lithium. To the geologists, it appears to be the biggest discovery of their careers, and Afghanistan may soon become an arena for serious international bidding, development and exploitation.

There is no infrastructure at all. It will take years and a lot of investment capital to begin to extract these valuable minerals, but there is strong interest in both the U.S. and China in getting something started. Scientists are already referring to Afghanistan as "the Saudi Arabia of the mineral world."

Lithium and its compounds have numerous industrial applications, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, high strength-to-weight alloys used in aircraft, and lithium batteries. Lithium also has important links to nuclear physics. The transmutation of lithium atoms to tritium was the first man-made form of a nuclear fusion reaction, and lithium deuteride serves as a fusion fuel in staged thermonuclear weapons.

It all adds up to this being a highly strategic metal, and these massive new reserves may provide a wellspring for a new economic surge worldwide. But before any of this can happen, an enormously costly infrastructure must be put in place, and it appears that there will be no shortage of bidders for the right to provide it.

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