Why is there a scarcity of lithium?

One of the major impediments to the widespread adoption of electric cars is a shortage of lithium for the batteries. I read an article a while back that says that there is simply not enough lithium available on the entire planet to make enough batteries to replace every gasoline-powered car with one electric car. And that confuses the heck out of me.

The Big Bang theory says that in the beginning, there was a whole bunch of hydrogen, and then lots of hydrogen started to clump together and form stars, and those stars produced lots of helium through fusion, and then after helium, all the rest of the elements. That's why hydrogen is the most common element in the universe by far, and helium is the second most common.

Well, lithium is #3 on the periodic table. By extrapolation, there ought to be several times more lithium around than, say, iron or aluminum, which there is definitely enough of for us to build plenty of cars with. So why do we have a scarcity of lithium?

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Actually, what you've read about the production of nuclei is not quite correct. There are several different processes by which atomic nuclei are produced:

1. Big Bang nucleosynthesis is the fusion of hydrogen nuclei to form heavier elements in the early stages of the universe, as it cooled from the big bang. There are rather specific thermal requirements for this process to occur, so there was only a short time window in which heavier elements could form, meaning that the only fusion to actually happen in significant amounts was the conversion of hydrogen (and deuterium) to helium, and an extremely tiny amount of lithium.
2. Stellar nucleosynthesis is the fusion of hydrogen and other nuclei in the cores of stars. This is something separate from big bang cosmology, since stars didn't form until millions of years into the universe's lifetime.

Now, contrary to what you might have read, not all elements are formed in stellar nucleosynthesis. There are specific "chains" of nuclear reactions that occur, and only the elements that are produced by those reactions will exist in a star in appreciable quantities. Most stars produce their energy using either the proton-proton chain (in lighter stars) or the CNO cycle (in heavier stars), both of which consume hydrogen and form helium. Once most of the hydrogen has been consumed, the star's temperature will increase and it will start to fuse helium into carbon. When the helium runs out, it will fuse carbon into oxygen, then oxygen into silicon, then silicon into iron. (Of course the actual process is more complicated - see the Wikipedia articles for details.) Several other elements are produced or involved along the way, including neon, magnesium, phosphorous, and others, but lithium is not among them. In fact, stars have a tendency to consume lithium, rather than producing it, so stars actually tend to have only small amounts of lithium.

3. Supernova nucleosynthesis is the fusion of atomic nuclei due to the high-pressure, high-energy conditions that arise when a large star explodes in a type II supernova. There are certain similarities between this and big bang nucleosynthesis, namely the high temperatures and pressures, but the main difference is that an exploding star will have "reserves" of heavy elements built up from a lifetime of nuclear fusion. So instead of just forming a lot of helium as occurred just after the big bang, a supernova will form a whole spectrum of heavy elements. In fact supernovae are the only natural source of elements heavier than iron, since it actually requires an input of energy to produce those elements as fusion products. I believe some amount of lithium would be formed in a supernova along with all the other elements, but since a large star would have used up its hydrogen and helium in the central region where most of the action takes place, lithium is probably not a particularly common reaction product.

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A little point to add to a great answer: "many thousands of years" for the time of formation of the first stars is true but is quite an understatement! About the earliest one can imagine stars forming is $10^7$ years after the Big Bang, and $10^8$ years is more likely. –  Ted Bunn Jun 16 '11 at 13:50
Would it be at least roughly true to say that the "big picture" reason that Li isn't common is just that Li nuclei aren't as tightly bound as other nuclei in their mass range? Everything you say about the specific processes is correct, as far as I know, but one might be left still wondering why, e.g., lithium is consumed rather than produced by stellar nucleosynthesis. It seems to me that, without doing too much violence to the truth, we can say that the general answer is just that, when nuclei that size are forming, other, more tightly-bound things are energetically favored. Is that right? –  Ted Bunn Jun 16 '11 at 13:55
@Ted: good point about the star formation epoch, I neglected to check that number. I'll edit. As far as your other comment about why lithium isn't produced, I think that makes sense. But astrophysics/nuclear physics isn't my primary area of expertise, so if there is something more subtle going on, I probably wouldn't know about it. –  David Z Jun 16 '11 at 15:21
Amplifying on Ted & David. There is a gap in terms of the stability against coversion to something else between hydrogen N=2 and carbon N=6. Those elements are very easy to fuse into other elements. There is a considerable range of brown dwarfs that burn Deuterium and Lithium, but never get hot enough to burn hydrogen. So the little bit of primordial lithium there was is being made even scarecer whenever interstellar gas is recycles through stars. –  Omega Centauri Jun 16 '11 at 22:13
Another thing that should be pointed out about this awesome answer is that these stars will still have plenty of hydrogen and helium present in the late stages, just not in their cores. –  Jerry Schirmer Jun 29 '13 at 20:58

The key word in what you've heard is "available" because there is quite a lot of lithium in the earth that is not so easy to obtain. The notion of "available Lithium" probably means known land reserves, which according to this page amount to 14 million tons.

The amount dissolved in seawater is estimated at 230 billion tons (which is enough for lots of batteries). Seawater extraction does not seem to be economically viable yet, but people are studying it.

The estimated concentration of lithium in the Earth's crust ranges from 1 to 31 ppm, so if we excavate the whole crust, we'll get between 20 and 600 trillion tons. In other words, if our civilization ever came to a point where we really needed lots of lithium, we wouldn't have to go too far to find it.

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It might not be viable for just lithium, but what if we do it to get drinkable water + every other precious resource we want? –  Ivo Flipse Jun 16 '11 at 13:04
Then you are left trying to extra a few ppm of lithium from a lot of sodium chloride. Since the first step would probably be to dissolve that in water you haven't really gained very much! –  Martin Beckett Jun 16 '11 at 20:46
@Ivo, I'm not an expert in mineral extraction, but I haven't heard anything immediately promising for the near future. Desalination plants are only built in very dry places, and they dispose of the concentrated brine they make. –  Scott Carnahan Jun 17 '11 at 17:53
Desalination is done by Ultrafiltration (mostly) and one does not go for a concentrated brine as the "waste". This were very expensive. The products are fresh water and some water slightly higher in salinity than one started with. Saving on the volume of seawater processed would be silly. –  Georg Jul 29 '11 at 14:30

This is a small complement to David's and Scott's answers

As usual Wikipedia's page on Lithium contains useful information :

Both natural isotopes have anomalously low nuclear binding energy per nucleon compared to the next lighter and heavier elements, helium and beryllium, which means that alone among stable light elements, lithium can produce net energy through nuclear fission. The two lithium nuclei have lower binding energies per nucleon than any other stable compound nuclides other than deuterium, and helium-3. As a result of this, though very light in atomic weight, lithium is less common in the solar system than 25 of the first 32 chemical elements.

[...]

⁷Li is one of the primordial elements (or, more properly, primordial nuclides) produced in Big Bang nucleosynthesis. A small amount of both ⁶Li and ⁷Li are produced in stars, but are thought to be burned as fast as produced. Additional small amounts of lithium of both ⁶Li and ⁷Li may be generated from solar wind, cosmic rays hitting heavier atoms, and from early solar system ⁷Be and ¹⁰Be radioactive decay.

So, basically, Lithium is (barely) produced as David Zaslavsky told you in his answer, and the reason the production is low because Lithium is barely stable.

But as @Scott Carnahan tells in his answer, the notion of lithium scarcity is linked with its repartition on earth. And the reason it is difficult to obtain is ultimately its high chemical reactivity, which means that it is basically diluted everywhere, and is rarely concentrated in easy to mine deposits. On the same wikipedia page as above, they say :

Although lithium is widely distributed on Earth, it does not naturally occur in elemental form due to its high reactivity.

[...]

According to the Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium, "Lithium is a comparatively rare element, although it is found in many rocks and some brines, but always in very low concentrations. There are a fairly large number of both lithium mineral and brine deposits but only comparatively a few of them are of actual or potential commercial value. Many are very small, others are too low in grade."

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The common mistake behind this statement is that lithium is seen as a fuel that's consumed and discarded. After all, that's how oil works. There's not enough cheap lithium for that. But like steel, lithium will be recycled..

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This is not the whole truth. There are lossy uses of lithium and recycling never is 100.000 %. –  Georg Jul 29 '11 at 10:07
Wouldn't matter. 99.x % recycling is sufficient. As Scott Carnahan noted, there's plenty in seawater. So you can economically replenish a small loss in recycling, the "not economically viable" argument only applies to 0% reuse. –  MSalters Jul 29 '11 at 12:58

According to this NPR story, there is no shortage of lithium for batteries:

"I don't know of any serious person in the automotive industry or in the lithium industry who believed that there is a serious, long-term supply problem," he says. "In fact, for the next 10 years there will probably be an oversupply of lithium because so many companies have now moved into the market."

And unlike the impact of mining other natural resources, concentrating lithium is an "environmentally benign" process, Fletcher says. "It's about as low-impact as mining can get. They're really just pumping water up ... and there are really no toxic chemicals in a lithium-ion battery."

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This sounds like it's being projected based on demand. The article I read (I wish I could remember where now) was more theoretical. It basically said "if you wanted to theoretically replace every gasoline-powered car with an electric car, you'd run out of lithium way before you ran out of cars to replace." –  Mason Wheeler Jun 16 '11 at 17:54

Lithium is more abundant in the Earth's crust than lead. However, it is more reactive than such metals and less abundant than other reactive metals such as sodium. Because of this it does not tend to accumulate in rich geological deposits in a form that makes it easy to extract. Its lightness may be another factor.

Reactive metals such as lithium can form salts which dissolve in water. These are then left in deposits when enclosed areas of water dry up. Lithium is 1000 times less abundant in the Earth's crust than other reactive metals such as Sodium, Calcium and Potassium so it is still only found in relatively small quantities in such deposits.

However, some compounds of lithium are sufficiently soluble that it is present in some dried up sea deposits. About half the accessible Lithium on Earth is said to be beneath the Bolivian dessert and if extracting it in the future becomes as important as extracting oil is now, then there is not likely to be such a big shortage.

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Reactivity is not an criterion! Rubbish! What about reactivity of sodium, found in million of tonnes chunks as high purity "salt"? –  Georg Jul 29 '11 at 12:44
But Sodium is over 1000 times more abundant in the Earths crust than lithium. It is more realistic to compare it with lead which has similar abundance. What makes lithium harder to mine than lead or is its high reactivity –  Philip Gibbs - inactive Jul 29 '11 at 14:12
Next problem: Lithium salts are not "not very soluble". From where did get this nonsense? Lithim carbonate is somewhat less soluble compared to sodium carboate, but soluble enough to find nearly all lithium once set free from primary rocks in the sea! There is only one reason for the situation: there is relatively few lithium in earth crust, not enough to make deposits like rock salt or potassium salt stocks. –  Georg Jul 29 '11 at 14:18
"" But sodium...."" Right! thats it! So why then inventing wrong statements about solubility and inferring reactivity: I'll tell You: This nonsense sweeps around in the web. –  Georg Jul 29 '11 at 14:25