Turn to the Volcanoes. They Are Our Electric Future.

The super-batteries of tomorrow will be powered by them.

jimveilleux/Getty

This story was originally published by Newsweek and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Electric cars and smartphones of the future could be powered by supervolcanoes like Yellowstone after scientists discovered that ancient deposits within them contain huge reservoirs of lithium—a chemical element used to make lithium-ore batteries, supplies of which are increasingly dwindling.

Lithium, a soft white metal first discovered in 1817 by Johan August Arfvedson, has become widely used in manufacturing, most importantly in the production of rechargeable batteries for phones, laptops, cameras and vehicles. It has also been used in psychiatric treatments and to produce nuclear weapons.

Most of the world’s lithium currently comes from Australia and Chile, generally being extracted from brines, pegmatites (igneous rock) and sedimentary rocks. But it is a finite resource, and with car manufactures and technology companies increasingly looking to create battery-powered devices, lithium is becoming an ever-more precious metal, with demand outstripping supply.

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from Stanford University and the U.S. Geological Survey have found a new potential source for lithium—within America’s supervolcanoes.

These volcanoes are capable of producing huge eruptions, about 1,000 times bigger than average. Along with the famous Yellowstone caldera, there are three other supervolcanoes in the U.S., Crater Lake, Long Valley and Valles Caldera.

When these volcanoes erupt, they collapse into huge basin-like formations known as calderas. These depressions often fill with water to become lakes, with the ash and pumice ejected during the eruption spread across the caldera in ancient deposits.

In the study, the team looked to supervolcanoes as a potential source of lithium because of the lithium-enriched magmas that formed them. Over thousands of years, lithium leaks out of the volcanic deposits, accumulating in the caldera lake, eventually becoming concentrated in a clay.

The team looked at samples taken from the High Rock caldera complex in Nevada, Sierra la Primavera, Mexico, Pantelleria in the Strait of Sicily, Yellowstone, and Hideaway Park in Colorado. By comparing concentrations of magmas formed in these various tectonic settings, they were able to show how supervolcanoes have the potential to host huge amounts of lithium-rich clay deposit.

“If you have a lot of magma erupting, it doesn’t have to have as much lithium in it to produce something that is worthy of economic interest as we previously thought,” study co-author Gail Mahood said in a statement. “You don’t need extraordinarily high concentrations of lithium in the magma to form lithium deposits and reserves.”

“We’re going to have to use electric vehicles and large storage batteries to decrease our carbon footprint,” Mahood said. “It’s important to identify lithium resources in the U.S. so that our supply does not rely on single companies or countries in a way that makes us subject to economic or political manipulation.”Having a supply of lithium available could prove hugely useful in the coming decades—it could meet the rising demand for the metal and to “diversify the global lithium supply chain,” the team wrote.

Lead author Thomas Benson added: “We’ve had a gold rush, so we know how, why and where gold occurs, but we never had a lithium rush. The demand for lithium has outpaced the scientific understanding of the resource, so it’s essential for the fundamental science behind these resources to catch up.”

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.