West Virginia Scientists Report That 'Fool's Gold' May Be Valuable After All

Scientists at West Virginia University have discovered unexpectedly high concentrations of lithium in "fool's gold," the glittery, metallic pyrite that has been mistaken for precious metal for thousands of years.

During medieval times, charlatans made money by selling the relatively worthless pyrite as gold. Today, the term "fool’s gold" is used metaphorically to define anything that is mistakenly highly valued.

Well, it seems that pyrite may get the last laugh.

Lithium is often called "white gold" because it is in such high demand and carries a heavy price tag. Lithium-ion batteries are the energy source for phones, laptops, electric vehicles, e-bikes, power-backup devices and your garage-full of power tools.

According to published reports, the world currently produces roughly 110,000 tons of lithium each year, but demand is projected to be five times that much by the end of this decade.

The challenge is to find new, accessible, inexpensive sources of lithium — and the answer may be found in the mounds of discarded mining material containing "worthless" pyrite.

Shailee Bhattacharya, a sedimentary geochemist and doctoral student working with Professor Shikha Sharma in the Isotopic and Biogeochemical Characterization of Geological Materials (IsoBioGeM) lab at West Virginia University, argues that exploring previous industrial operations (e.g., mine tailings or drill cuttings) could serve as a source of additional lithium without generating new waste materials.

"We can talk about sustainable energy without using a lot of energy resources," she commented.

Her team studied 15 sedimentary rock samples from the Appalachian basin in the US and were surprised to find plenty of lithium in pyrite minerals in shale. Her team presented its findings recently at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly 2024.

Pyrite is high in sulfur, which is leading researchers to rethink how lithium-ion batteries might be replaced by lithium-sulfur batteries. Scientists report that sulfur-rich pyrite requires fewer resources to extract and that means a lower environmental impact compared to the current mining operations required to produce the lithium-ion variety.

Apart from the Appalachian basin of West Virginia, fool's gold is found throughout the US, including Colorado, Illinois, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Montana, Washington and Missouri.

Credit: Image by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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