pyrite fools gold lithium
© Wirestock/GettyA piece of fools gold, or pyrite. The material could be a major source of lithium.
We used to make fun of Fool's Gold. Now, it might fuel the future.

Fool's gold or iron pyrite — a common mineral that resembles its precious counterpart — may be more valuable than scientists originally thought, as it has been found to be abundant in lithium.

Lithium is vital to the future development of green energy. This is because the material, which is highly reactive, is a key element in batteries — including of the kind used in electric vehicles (hence the name, lithium ion batteries).

Due to this, demand for lithium is soaring. The precious resource can be extracted from brines — and also mined in select locations including Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Chile and China. But scientists have now found it in an apparently undervalued mineral.

The strange discovery was made after a team of researchers from West Virginia University set out to see whether lithium could be extracted with alternative industrial operations.

They found an abundance of lithium in the pyrite minerals in shale — a sedimentary rock made from mud.

The presence of lithium in this material is "unheard of," sedimentary geochemist and doctoral student Shailee Bhattacharya said in a statement.

"I am trying to understand how lithium and pyrite could be associated with one another," Bhattacharya, who is working with Professor Shikha Sharma in the IsoBioGeM Lab at West Virginia University, said.

There is not a great deal of information on how the sulfur-rich mineral and lithium are linked, however it has already been noted that lithium-sulfur batteries could one day replace lithium-ion batteries.

This is because lithium-sulfur batteries have the potential to be more environmentally friendly, because sulfur can be extracted using far less resources, meaning it has less of an effect on the environment.

The fact that lithium is present in iron pyrite is a new finding, and it is not yet known whether extraction would be commercially viable in practice.

"This is a well-specific study," Bhattacharya said, noting that more research needs to be done.

However the findings are certainly positive, as it could mean that lithium could be sourced without new mining.

"We can talk about sustainable energy without using a lot of energy resources," Bhattacharya said.

Bhattacharya will present these new findings at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly 2024 next week.