16 December 2021
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Lithium Islands in the Sun

Please, Sir, May I Save the World Again?

Q: Oh? You've saved the world once?
Haven't you noticed that you're not buried under a heap of volcanic ash?
You're talking about that Yellowstone thing again?
That and more. Your blog interruption authorization can be revoked if you don't read more responsibly!
Q: So what is it this time? You're going to prevent the sun from going nova?
A: Already taken care of. This is a resource and climate-change and economics thing. Very important!

OK, How Do You Propose to Help?

Here are three problems that this blogitem shall dispose of:

  • Oceangoing ships (such as the "supply chain" uses) are dirty. Not just barnacles, but sulfur and CO2 emissions from the cheap and woeful bunker fuel that they use in their enormous engines.
  • LOL! Not a belly laugh, but a tragic Lack of Lithium that will cause the price of electric cars to rocket.
  • The Scourge of Solar Power renewable energy. There are plenty of whiners who complain, truthfully and maybe with some justification, that solar power takes up too much space. Dot the country with solar and where will we grow our crops? Or, for that matter, where will we live?

Let's Resolve These Three Problems With RIKLBlog Eclat

There's a big fuss over the amount of pollutants spewed by oceangoing cargo ships. They use a particularly low grade of oil called bunker fuel, which is contaminated by sulfur. When it's burned, it not only creates the usual carbon dioxide but also sulfur dioxide, which is very damaging to human health*. Ships could burn lower-sulfur fuel, but that fuel would be much more expensive. Alternatively, ships could "scrub" the sulfur from their exhaust. Converting them to do this would be...

Yes. Much more expensive. It would be possible for ships to use hydrogen instead of bunker fuel. Which would also be more expensive and, for now, well, impossible. There isn't enough hydrogen available, and current ships engines can't use it. But new ships could have hydrogen-burning engines or use hydrogen fuel cells to run electric engines. All of this is known technology. So: Let's start building new oceangoing vessels that use hydrogen fuel, and make enough hydrogen at reasonable enough prices that the cargo carriers and cruise lines would be content to use it.

Whew! Glad we wrapped that one up.

Earth Needs Lithium More Than Mars Needs Women

Although I and my already-owned Tesla can thumb my nose at this issue, governments and auto manufacturers and their future customers can't. We're running out of easily obtained lithium. Lithium currently comes largely from brine found in Australia and South America, and the wonderfully named mineral called spodumene, found in the Congo, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and in many other locations**. The problem is that while electric cars are now a small percentage of the fleet, there is ambition to make them half, or even the majority in the next decade or so. Where will the extra lithium come from? If you've been following lithium prices, and who hasn't, you know that they've been skyrocketing recently after a lull.

Chart as of end 2021. Click for update.

Battery makers typically prefer lithium carbonate. I believe lithium mined from the sea might be the carbonate, but could also be a chloride, phosphate, or hydroxide, depending on the process used. The real cost is separating the lithium ions from the much greater concentration of sodium, calcium, potassium, etc.

The KAUST process yields lithium phosphate, and is relatively new. Presumably it can be significantly improved. I'll leave that to the chemical engineers; it's why we keep them around.

According to KAUST, "The oceans contain about 5,000 times more lithium than the land..." KAUST is a Saudi Arabian entity; who better to know about sea water? Looks like our second problem is also resolved. We'll get our future lithium from the ocean. Another Whew!

Maybe I Haven't Been Specific Enough About the Above Three Problems and Solutions?

Of course, nothing is as easy as I make it seem. It's easy for me, of course, but there's real work and research and engineering required to make this happen. Not my job! What is my job is convincing you (and myself) that this isn't wild-eyed dreaming on my part. So let's think about implementation. The third item on my list of three is solar power. What's not to love?

  • It's free!
  • It's nuclear with little danger of radioactive contamination, fallout, or need for waste disposal.
  • It's distributed across the planet. Nothing is less political than sunlight.

But there are people who don't love solar power.

  • It's intermittent. (Nighttime. Clouds. Trees shading your roof.)
  • It's hard to store. You need batteries or water storage and pumps, or even rocks cycling between potential and kinetic energy.
  • Utility-scale solar takes up a lot of land and their solar farms may not be pretty enough for the sensitive.
  • I lied about "free" above. The energy is free, but the solar cells and land are not.

Converting water to hydrogen and/or extracting lithium from seawater will require a lot of energy. Big, big solar farms and gigawatts of power are necessary to do this on an industrial scale, which is the only way to make it worthwhile.

Where to Put These Enormous Island Solar Farms?

I think I've left enough clues. Here's a big one: Two thirds of the earth's surface is covered with water. To be a bit more specific, that water is called "sea water"—you know, where the lithium is—and sea water comes in the form of "oceans."

If you're a major shipping company or shipbuilder, building solar islands in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans sounds like a great opportunity for diversification. If you're a shipper, your container vessels can pull up to one of these islands and refuel with hydrogen in the middle of the ocean. Pick up a load of lithium salt(s) while you're there. If it's your own island, then the fuel is free and you can sell the lithium. Otherwise, maybe make a trade deal. Transport the lithium for a reduced-cost or free shot of hydrogen. If you're a shipbuilder, you can be Ocean Tesla: "Buy our ship and get free HydroCharging."

An interesting additional benefit: It seems to me, totally ignorant of maritime law that I am, that one could "just build" a solar island. No permits, no government involvement. Beyond territorial limits, I don't think there's much government to interfere, and no NIMBYs to whine. Beyond having a beacon showing your island's current, precise location amd orientation, (necessary if it isn't rigidly attached to the sea floor***), you should be free to build. Can't you just see the ocean dotted with those tall towers showing the price of hydrogen?

Not That Building the Islands is Free

Maybe I'll do some rough calculations about some of the cost numbers in a future blog. But one really big number stands out: Of the 139.5 million square miles of ocean surface, once you subtract maybe half of that since you'd want to be in the mid-latitudes, and maybe another half of that since you'd want your solar island to be accessible to shipping routes, you'd still have 45 million square miles of free "land" on which to build. In fact, you can disallow almost any portion of the oceans' surface and still have millions of locations.

The potential problems are money and engineering, but in reverse order. With the hundreds of billions of dollars in the hands of individuals, and the trillions being thrown around by the politicians, all one must be is convinced that it's at all feasible to build these solar islands and the money will appear from somewhere. Free fuel! Plenty of lithium! Vastly less sulfur dioxide in the air! Imagine the tax credits someone will get for all of that.

But the engineering...Is it really practical to build solar islands? Who hasn't seen old movies of warships sailing in the storm-tossed North Atlantic! (It's encouraging, though, that the ships do make it across.) On the other side of the world we have the Pacific Ocean. It's called "Pacific" for a reason, so maybe that's a better initial candidate. I know almost nothing about constructing floating solar islands, an ignorance I share with almost everyone. But there's nothing theoretically impossible about it, and the benefits are enormous. The islands will have plenty of insolation, "free" storage of solar energy in the form of hydrogen, and maybe they will become vacation spots and sport tourist shops and banks. During the "high season" who wouldn't want to get away? Cruise lines already have their own private islands in the Bahamas! Where are our old-fashioned capitalists? Warren, Bill, Elon, are you reading this?

* Fun fact: The ships of the single largest cruise company, Carnival, emit ten times more sulfur dioxide than all of Europe's cars combined.

** Little-known fact: Rocky Raccoon survived his encounter with Daniel, became a geologist, and made a career out of mining spodumene.

*** Yes, orientation. If the solar cells are tilted appropriately and the island is slowly rotated to keep them pointed at the sun, the efficiency can be enhanced somewhat at the equator and greatly at higher latitudes. Try that with a solar farm on land!

Follow-up 12 January 2022

Give Hyundai credit for taking this concept and floating with it very, very quickly. Now if they'd only get on the lithium bandwagon!
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