Sunday 19 January 2014

Lithium One

Chromium Six, Lithium One?  What is yer man about now? Are we to have an occasional series on all the elements?  Aren't there more than 100 of them?  Are we nearly there yet?

Relax folks, it's both better (I have nothing to say about Germanium or Astatine) and worse (I have have quite a lot to say about Lithium) than that. In some ways the future of the Western world depends on the availability of Lithium because it's an essential component of Lithium-ion batteries which have great advantages in whoomp-per-weight ratio, rechargability, and life-expentancy over other portable power sources.  So we need Lithium if we are to have new cell-phones, tablets and kindles.  More importantly for Lithium economics, we need Lithium - and lots of it - if we're going to have electric cars. Lots of it because the task for a Li-ion battery in an MP3-player is to shiver a tiny membrane back and forth to make a tinny sound, whereas in a golf-cart it must shove 100kg of adipose tissue, a supersize cup of Starbucks, a set of golf-clubs and a silly hat along the fairway.

I wasn't aware of this at all at all until I read Lawrence Wright's great article Lithium Dreams in the New Yorker 4 years ago.  In a way that essay started me off on a long-form journalism jag that hasn't really stopped.  As I'm teaching EnvChem at the Institute, I thought it would make a good story to lecture about, so I clagged together a bunch of powerpoints to deliver an executive summary on the matter.  Imagine my surprise when my researches turned up the fact that our own looming Blackstairs Mountains (as we call hills in Ireland) were about to be mined for Lithium because the landscape here is as dense with the stuff as any brine lake in Bolivia.  Then driving to work last Spring, I had a brilliant idea: I'd run a final year project analysing Lithium in the groundwater and seeing if this might be an indicator of where other seams of Lithium rich rock might be located.

How do you access the groundwater?  You tap into bore-holes which make a dense tattoo of holes across the surface of rural Ireland. How do you tap into bore-holes? You rock up to a farm-yard with a pee-pee sample bottle and ask for 50mls from out of the kitchen tap.  It's a teeny bit more complex that that . . . but not by much.  All you then need is a competent student to run the samples through some grey boxes in the Analytical Chemistry Lab.  Well I've secured the best chemistry student in the current crop of  final year students and this weekend, to service his voracious appetite for samples to analyse, I've been delivering pairs of sample bottles to friends-and-neighbours and asking them to fill them at the end of the the bore-flushing day.  I insist that the water is taken then so I'm sampling the groundwater rather than the chemistry of their internal pipework, and from the kitchen tap because I don't want to know what's in their header tank.

Thirty years ago, I got my first job teaching population genetics in a British university.  They gave me an odd room as an office that had previously been a tiny laboratory. If I got thirsty as I worked away in there prepping my first classes, I'd half-fill a mug from the lab tap and chug that down.  It was pretty good that water, and certainly did its job on the re-hydration front.  A few weeks later, when I'd settled down a bit, I noticed a separate tap in the gents' jacks marked "Drinking Water".  Ever the institutionalised, I brought my mug along and sampled that source. Pttuuuueeee! It was awful: weeping with chlorine with curious and disconcerting metallic notes and a hint of new mown hay.  So I asked the chief technician where the water in my lab/office came from and he said the header tank on the roof.  Which was apparently open to the sky and full of algae, dead pigeons and the crusts of plumbers' sandwiches.  What kills not fattens, so I went on drinking out of the lab tap - it was nearer than the t'ilets.

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