Fool’s Gold May Now Be Not So Foolish

Since lithium is a component of electric automobiles, laptops, cellphones, and even nuclear fusion reactors, it is rapidly emerging as the most significant element of the future.

However, there are significant financial and environmental expenses associated with lithium extraction, so it’s exciting that a recent study shows that pyrite, sometimes known as fool’s gold, may be a viable supply of the metal.

Although the exact nature of the pyrite/lithium interaction is unknown, it could imply that both current and historical oil and gas activities are paradoxically sources of the very mineral intended to displace those fuels that release greenhouse gases.

One of the most significant elements in the periodic table is lithium. Lightweight and easily ion-gaining and -losing, the material is essential to batteries, which run nearly all our electronics.

However, lithium’s value extends beyond your iPhone. Breeding tritium, the hydrogen isotope at the center of nuclear fusion, requires lithium-6, an isotope of the soft metal. These factors, along with the rapidly approaching EV revolution and the pressing need for sustainable energy battery storage, are the main reasons the U.S. government views lithium, sometimes known as “White Gold,” as a crucial mineral.

Despite all of its wonderful advantages, lithium has a few significant drawbacks. One reason for the lengthy lineups at airport security is that most lithium-ion batteries are like controlled bombs because of their extremely volatile nature. Additionally, it is difficult to remove because it hides in brine and igneous rock.

A recent study conducted by West Virginia University’s Isotopic and Biogeochemical Characterization of Geological Materials (IsoBioGeM) laboratory has discovered another type of “gold” that may be a previously undiscovered source of lithium. This mineral is called pyrite, or more disparagingly, “fool’s gold.”

What the scientists discovered shocked them after examining 15 sedimentary rock samples from the middle-Devonian period (around 400 million years ago) in the Appalachian basin. Lithium was found in the pyrite crystals found in shale. This suggests that because of the little-known interactions between lithium and pyrite, the organic-rich shale may contain larger amounts of lithium than previously thought. The EGU General Assembly 2024 last week saw the scientists share their findings.

According to the study’s abstract, “these preliminary results imply that pyrite along with organic matter may play a previously unrecognized role in the Li distribution in organic-rich shales.” It is unclear what geochemical processes could lead to Li enrichments connected to pyrite. However, as it would produce little to no new waste, using materials from earlier industrial processes (such as drill cuttings or mine tailings) as a source of extra Li would be appealing.

Although it’s great to discover a possible new lithium supply, this specific technique would also be incredibly environmentally friendly. Extracting lithium from existing and former oil and gas activities could help ease the shift away from those highly greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels. Establishing new lithium mines is expensive, time-consuming, and environmentally damaging. This is because of the possibility that residual lithium concentrations in the pyrite minerals left in the shale may be found in industrial mining activities, particularly in mine tailings and drill cuttings.

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