STEP and Lithium

This entry was posted by on Friday, 23 July, 2010 at

Carbon capture using solar power can now potentially remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using a process, STEP, which the scientist Dr. Stuart Licht describes in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters. This journal isn’t available to the public but supporting information is available under open access.

Lithium is not the only material which can be used in these cells. According to Green Car Congress, the lithium carbonate cell used in this process provided a more energy efficient alternative to cells which use sodium carbonate or potassium carbonate. The problem is that sodium and potassium are extremely common and cheap, and lithium is much more rare. There is also high demand for lithium because of its other uses, which include batteries, renewable energy systems, and medicine. Lithium deposits in Afghanistan provide a potential source of this metal in the future.

There are really two main questions here. If this process is scaled up enough it can reduce carbon dioxide to preindustrial levels, eliminating the global warming issue. The question is how much lithium would be necessary to accomplish this task. It is also not clear whether the cells using the other materials are effective at removing carbon dioxide and just less effective than lithium, or whether the other cells were not able to remove carbon dioxide from the air at all. Because sodium and potassium are not subject to the same supply constraints, less efficient cells which still remove carbon dioxide from the air may be a cheaper alternative and conserve a metal which is available in limited supply.

As with the other carbon capture methods, this process also extracts carbon which can be recycled for fuel use at a later time. The carbon dioxide will be emitted when this material is burned, although the electrolysis cells can simply capture it again. The electrolysis cells draw their own power from solar cells, so this process does not require carbon sources to operate, although mining the metals and manufacturing the cells themselves will likely use carbon dioxide. The tradeoff is worthwhile if the cells are durable and stable for a long time, and stability of the cells is an issue with this process.

Algae does not require lithium or any other rare metals, and neither do trees. Algae also does not have the other impacts such as mining damage to the environment. The main issue with algae carbon sequestration is the space it requires. A combination of several methods should be an effective method to deal with lithium supply issues. Also, a physical chemist knows how to make many types of electrolysis cells so there is good potential for substituting alternative metals. The cell also uses Gallium and Indium, which are rare and expensive, as well as Arsenic. Lithium is not a rare earth metal, although batteries that use lithium do use it along with rare earth metals.

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