South Korea plans to extract lithium from seawater

South Korea plans to meet demand for lithium batteries in electronics by extracting the rare metal from seawater, according to a new report.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

As electronics proliferate around the world, South Korea plans to meet demand by extracting lithium from seawater, according to a new report.

Lithium, of course, is used in almost every modern-day electronic device that has a rechargeable battery, from smartphones to electric cars to laptop computers.

Heck, even the smart grid needs the stuff.

According to a Reuters report, the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources has developed technology to draw lithium from sea water, the second nation to accomplish the feat, after Japan.

The idea is to hedge against rising prices for the metal. (Today's news is Korea merely cashing in on a promise made back in March 2010.)

The institute said on Thursday that a research facility and offshore plant could be constructed in as little as six months and be fully operational by 2012. Steelmaker POSCO will help commercialize the project.

By 2014, the plant will be able to extract lithium at a rate of 33 tons per year.

The move is just the latest salvo in a rapidly escalating war among industrialized nations over the Earth's rare earth mineral stockpile. (To be extra clear, lithium is technically not a rare earth mineral. It's a rare alkali metal. But the demand for it, and reasons for that demand, are the same. -Ed.) Industry is eyeing Afghanistan, Bolivia and even the U.S. as sources for the material.

But it's not just about electronics; it's about economic power, too. In October, China played hardball with the U.S. over rare earths; it can easily do so with Japan and Korea, both regional rivals.

The goal? Self-sufficiency. The problem: there's just not enough to go around.

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