Published: Aug 19, 2017 4:14 p.m. ET
Crater Lake in Oregon, a caldera lake formed after a volcano collapse.
Using trace elements as proxy, Stanford says it is easier to detect lithium in supervolcano lake deposits
Scientists at Stanford University say they have found a new way to detect large deposits of lithium, an essential component of rechargeable batteries powering everything from common household electronics and smartphones to electric vehicles.
Stanford researchers say that lake sediments within supervolcanoes can host lithium-rich clay deposits, which would be an important step toward diversifying the supply of the metal—most lithium found in today’s electronics come from deposits in rock formations in Australia and salt flats in Chile. Moreover, trace elements in such deposits can be used as a proxy for lithium, they say in a study.
“Supervolcanoes” produce massive eruptions and their calderas, formed after the volcano literally blows its roof off, are their most recognizable feature. The huge hole post-eruption often fills with water to form a lake, and Oregon’s Crater Lake is an example.
Over tens of thousands of years, rainfall and hot springs leach out lithium from the volcanic deposits, and the lithium accumulates, along with sediments, in the caldera lake where it becomes concentrated in clay, Stanford said.
The scientists analyzed samples from several calderas, and found a previously unknown correlation between trace elements, such as zirconium and rubidium, and lithium concentrations.
Lithium is a volatile element shifting easily from solid to liquid to vapor, and thus it is hard to measure its concentration. Detecting the trace elements as lithium stand-ins, however, geologists will be able to identify candidate supervolcanoes for lithium deposits “in a much easier way than measuring lithium directly,” Stanford said.
“The trace elements can be used as a proxy for original lithium concentration. For example, greater abundance of easily analyzed rubidium in the bulk deposits indicates more lithium, whereas high concentrations of zirconium indicate less lithium,” it said.
The Stanford study was scheduled to be published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications and was in part supported by a Defense Department fellowship.
Last week, energy news site Oilprice.com wrote about potential lithium constraints, singling out five stock plays for betting on the alkali metal: Albermarle Corp. ALB, +0.43% Canada’s Southern Lithium Corp. SNL, +2.63% Chile’s Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile SQM, -0.16% ; the Global X Lithium & Battery Tech ETF LIT, +0.53% and Tesla Inc. TSLA, -1.27%
The Global X ETF has gained more than 31% so far this year, compared with gains of around 10% for the S&P 500 index SPX, -0.18%
Albemarle earlier this month reported a modest second-quarter earnings beat, saying its lithium sales rose 56% year-on-year and almost all of the gain was in battery-grade lithium.
Analysts at UBS said in a recent note they expect lithium margins at Albemarle to remain above 40% despite an additional $60 million to $70 million in costs from royalty and community payments as well as other expenses.
“Pricing was up 21% in 1Q, 31% in 2Q and the debate continues on how long the industry can maintain that pace,” the UBS analysts said.
The answer, at least as far as electric vehicles are concerned, might be “for a long time.”
Tesla in late July launched its Model 3, an all-electric sedan aimed for the masses, and expects to be able to run its Fremont, Calif., plant at a rate of 500,000 vehicles a year by the end of 2018.
Tesla has talked about adding other commercial and passenger vehicles, including an electric semi truck to be unveiled next month.