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Water purification could be the key to more electric cars

You could mine the oceans for lithium without hurting the environment.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Humanity is going to need a lot of lithium batteries if electric cars are going to take over, and that's a problem when there's only so much lithium available from conventional mines. There may be an oddball solution for that, however: turn the world's oceans into eco-friendly mines. Scientists have outlined a desalination technique that would use metal-organic frameworks (sponge-like structures with very high surface areas) with sub-nanometer pores to catch lithium ions while purifying ocean water. The approach mimics the tendency of cell membranes to selectively dehydrate and carry ions, leaving the lithium behind while producing water you can drink.

While the concept of extracting lithium certainly isn't new, this would be much more efficient and environmentally friendly. You don't need to pump water or use harmful (not to mention inefficient) chemicals. Instead of tearing up the landscape to find mineral deposits, battery makers would just have to deploy enough filters. It could even be used to make the most of water when pollution does take place -- you could recover lithium from the waste water at shale gas fields.

This method needs considerably more study before it's ready for real-world use. The implications are already clear, though. If this desalination approach reaches sufficient scale, the world would have much more lithium available for electric vehicles, phones and other battery-based devices. It would reduce the environmental impact of those devices, for that matter. While some say existing lithium mining negates some of the eco-friendliness of an EV, this purification could let you drive relatively guilt-free.

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