This June, the US Department of Defense proclaimed that those woefully parched mountains in Afghanistan contained a $900 billion trove of mineral deposits including copper, gold, iron and lithium. Of the four minerals, lithium was the one that sent Pentagon officials into a swoon. Some even claimed that as a result of the discovery, the impoverished nation could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
The mood-stabilizing properties of lithium have been known for a century. Physicians have used lithium for nearly that long to treat and prevent episodes of mania in people with bipolar disorder, for example. The popular soft drink 7-Up included lithium citrate as a “mood-booster” for 20 years after it was first commercialized in 1929.
Of course the mood stabilizing properties of lithium isn’t what has those Pentagon types excited. They’re pumped because lithium has become the can’t-do-without ingredient in the batteries that power smartphones, computers and other electronic devices. Lithium is also expected to become the prime source of battery power for hybrid-electric vehicles.
No one knows how much lithium exists in the Earth’s crust, and with demand for lithium batteries exploding, people worry the demand for lithium might outstrip supply. There is no shortage of the mineral today, but this worry has caused lithium prices to double since 2003.
Not all lithium deposits are equally easy to mine, by the way. Chile and Argentina currently supply half the world’s lithium, because deposits there can be mined inexpensively by drilling below the surface of dried-up lake beds and exposing lithium-laced saltwater beneath. From there, it’s a simple matter to evaporate the water and what’s left is lithium.
There are vast lithium deposits in Nevada as well, but they are mixed into clay. Extracting lithium from clay involves complex chemical reactions and heating the mix to 1,000 degrees. Lithium miners in Australia have to drill through granite, a still more expensive process.
No one knows yet how to extract the lithium from those forlorn mountains in Afghanistan. But so long as demand for the stuff remains high, the most important withdrawal plan for Afghanistan may have more to do with getting lithium out of the ground than getting troops out of the country.