The Problem with Lithium
How quickly we have forgotten. Yesterday’s front-page headline is today’s page 13 filler, consigned to the back of the newspaper as something sexier or more pressing forces its way to page one — above the fold.
The subject I’m talking about is oil, the pressing story before all the world’s stock markets decided to simultaneously implode. We used to worry about the price of oil and when it would run out, and even non-petrochemical engineers understood the concept of “peak oil.” But, whether alternative energy is still big news or not, this much is clear: The world’s oil supply is finite, fossil-fuelled vehicles pollute and the public outcry for an alternative is strong.
The leading alternative right now — if you judge technology by the amount of press generated — is electric cars. Electric cars don’t pollute, electrons are relatively cheap and, perhaps most importantly, these vehicles seem to have captured the imagination of the American consumer, still the greatest economic engine in the world.
Naturally, there are issues. Electric cars don’t have the range that current gasoline-powered cars enjoy. Replenishing the onboard energy supply is problematic, taking anywhere from 30 minutes (with special equipment) to all day. There’s also the small problem of the battery having to power both the car’s engine and its various ancillary and convenience devices — someday soon you may have to decide what’s more important, air conditioning or getting to your final destination.
Then there’s the least talked about problem on our road to electric transportation — the source of all that power. I don’t mean the massive amounts of additional electricity needed to power the approximately seven million cars a very optimistic Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s CEO, estimates will be sold annually by the year 2020 but the actual batteries that will store all those portable electrons. Just as we already have a problem with peak oil having caused last year’s massive price spikeat the pumps, there may be a similar paucity in the world’s capacity to produce lithium, the miracle metal key to so many automakers’ future plans for hybrid and electric vehicles.
This lightest metal in the periodic table was used primarily in the production of ceramics and high-temperature glass, not to mention anti-psychotic drugs. But, about two decades ago, it started gaining prominence as a material used for battery production, thanks to the relatively high energy density and comparatively light weight of lithium ion cells. Virtually all cellphone and laptop batteries use lithium as a core constituent. The much-ballyhooed but seldom-seem Tesla electric roadster uses more than 6,000 computer-sized batteries all mashed into one package. But whether they are the lithium cobalt batteries used in portable devices — not very useful for automotive use because of their reputation for overheating — or the newer lithium phosphate or lithium manganese formulations developed for cars, all use a base of lithium metal, which is most easily extracted from salt brine.
That might be a problem. There is already discussion of how much oil remains interred beneath the Earth’s surface and whether we are already suffering shortages because of the peak oil problem — essentially a theory stating that the amount of the world’s oil reserves is irrelevant since we have already reached our maximum ability to easily extract it. Now there may be problems with how much lithium the Earth holds and how quickly it can be mined.
On the pessimistic side, there is William Tahil, author of the research paper The Trouble with Lithium, who estimates the world’s lithium reserves at about four million tons. He claims the production of hybrid and electric cars will soon tax the world’s production of lithium carbonate. At the other end of the spectrum is Keith Evans, who has released An Abundance of Lithium, a report estimating there are 28 million tons of the base metal to be had, plenty enough to go around. Somewhere in the middle of these two opposing viewpoints is the United States Geological Survey’s somewhat dated estimate of 11 million tons.
Part of the discrepancy is due to how economical and easily each group thinks the mining of lithium will be, dividing their estimates between “reserves” (think of easily obtained Saudi Arabian oil literally bubbling to the surface) and the more difficult to process “base reserves” (think Canada’s Athabasca Oil Sands). Even the optimistic Evans allows that, like oil, his more generous prediction is based on the price of lithium rising in order to make increased mining cost-effective. This is not good news to automakers since it’s estimated that these new high-tech batteries already cost as much as US$10,000.
While existing mining levels are able to cope with current demand, there is no consensus on how many lithium-powered electric cars can be produced.
Tahil says any more than 1.5 million GM Volt-type vehicles annually would strain current production. SQM S.A., Chile’s largest producer of lithium carbonate, says there is plenty for about five million electric vehicles. Evans predicts there’s enough lithium for far more.
The discrepancies owe as much to the types of electric cars being produced — fully electric cars need bigger batteries and, therefore, more lithium than hybrids — as to the exact amount of the world’s lithium stocks.
However, virtually everyone readily agrees that the world’s current production of lithium — approximately 20,000 tons — is woefully short of what’s needed if electric car production really takes off.
Argentina, Australia and Chile account for more than 50% of the world’s lithium production; Russia also produces significant amounts.
But the real power player in the lithium market is Bolivia. Whether you take the pessimistic or optimistic estimate of its reserves, the South American country’s Salar de Uyuni salt desert has about 40% of the world’s lithium, so far untapped.
Mitsubishi, which thinks electric car production will outstrip lithium supply as early as 2015, is already in talks with Bolivia about sourcing its lithium. Ditto Toyota, one of the few automakers producing its own batteries.
What makes Bolivia’s position atop the lithium world truly ironic is that one of the United States’ (and Europe’s as well) primary objectives is to end its slavery to “foreign oil,” particularly since some of its suppliers have “problematic” politics.
Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, while not nearly as controversial as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, is nonetheless an ardent socialist and eager to ensure that South America’s poorest nation is not again ravaged of its natural resources.
According to Time magazine, Morales is adamant that battery production — not just lithium mining — becomes a source of revenue for his impoverished country.
So far, despite the potential for increased demand, development of Bolivia’s lithium reserves has not proceeded rapidly.
However, the incredible irony remains that the U.S. — where growth in hybrid vehicles is strongest — could be trading one unwanted South American source of energy — Venezuela — for another.
The questions remain: Will there be enough lithium for electric cars? Will it be mined fast enough? No answer seems definitive. Besides, the predicted popularity of electric cars could just be an environmentalist’s fantasy. Just as easily, battery technology could develop beyond the need for lithium, although, at the current rate of development, automakers seem committed to it for at least the medium-term future. Of course, we could have faith in the rosiest of mining/production estimates and assume all will go swimmingly no matter how many electric cars and laptop batteries are needed.
But I’m not paid to be an optimist. I’m a skeptic. And Lord knows, the world of electric cars could use less of the former and more of the latter.