By Bill Moore
Nature is a capricious benefactress.
She seems to often bless -- or curse, depending on your perspective -- some nations with an over-abundance of mineral wealth, while depriving others. We're all familiar with the pivotal position held by OPEC nations, especially in the Middle East, who sit atop two-thirds of the world's remaining crude oil reserves; and more critically, what that means geopolitically and militarily to everyone.
But in an even stranger twist of fate, most of the world's reserves of lithium carbonate are located in a tiny triangle located high in the Andes Altiplano, a remote, high desert region shared by Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Another rare and remote reserve is located high in the deserts of Tibet, now controlled by China. Smaller and declining reserves are found in Nevada and Australia.
Given this quirk of geography, two immediate questions arise: how much lithium do these resources hold and is it enough to meet future demand for electric car batteries? You are going to be as surprised and disturbed as I was when you learn the answers.
William Tahil lives in Normandy, France within just a few miles of the World War Two invasion beaches that saw so much death and destruction in June of 1944. Now a far more peaceful place with occasionally spotty telecommunications, it nonetheless, gives him access to France's advanced technology industries from automotive to aerospace. In his capacity as the Director of Research for Meridian International Research, he has been following the development of battery technology and electric drive vehicles for years, as well as researching peak oil.
As momentum began to build for the development of electric vehicles powered by lithium batteries, he asked a very basic question that few have bothered to ask: is there enough lithium in the world to build all the batteries the world is likely to need to eventually switch from fossil fuels to electric drive?
Talking to him by transAtlantic telephone, he stressed that he is not out to, in anyway, denigrate electric vehicles and he strongly believes that they are essential to solving the problem of peak oil, which is a resource depletion issue, possibly starting to occur within the next decade, if not sooner.
But lithium metals are also a resource and Tahil wanted to know just how much of it there is in the world that can be affordably extracted. What he discovered will give government and industry pause because the picture is not a pretty one, it turns out.
"The purpose of my paper was not to stir controversy, but it's to say that we need to look not just from a technological point of view at lithium ion battery but from an industrial and economic point of view if we're looking at scaling up lithium ion application from consumer electronics to something like the automotive industry where we're talking about an order of magnitude increase in the application of this technology across the globe.
"We need to take a conservative and realistic assessment of the resource base and the large-scale sustainability of that technology."
Tahil thoughtfully sent a copy of that paper, entitled "The Trouble with Lithium" to EV World. As soon as I read it, I contacted him in France and set up a time to do an interview. You can listen to part one of that 45-minute discussion using either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page. Or you may download it to your computer for playback on your favorite MP3 device.
Tahil began by explaining to me how we get lithium, the lightest of all metals on the periodic chart of elements. Originally, it was mined, milled and refined from a mineral called spodumene. It takes a great deal of effort, caustic materials and energy to extract pure lithium from this mineral. This was the primary source of lithium until the last couple decades. It is still the source from which a small amount of lithium comes. Three countries possess the largest deposits: Canada, Australia, and Zimbabwe, with less deposits located in Brazil, Portugal and Russia.
But back about a decade ago, Chile found that it could extract it far more cheaply from the brine lakes in the Altaplano, its high, dry deserts to the north. It simply pumped brine water into evaporation ponds and let the sun do the work. And because the concentration of lithium, which is six-times that of the brine lakes in Nevada where the process originated in the 1960s, as well as its ratio to magnesium, is the highest in the world, it gradually became the world's leading supplier, though its copper revenues still dwarf its lithium exports, Tahil noted.
Seventy-eight percent of all the lithium carbonate produced in the world comes from Chile and Argentina.
China is just now starting to exploit a series of some 33 brine lakes in and near Tibet, again in high, dry and very remote deserts.
"These will be the main sources in the future, the Andes and China," Tahil contends.
"There are no other sources in the world that will be economically recoverable, and the only other source is Nevada, but that's now in decline after 40 years production.
"We are on the cusp of a revolution," he continued. "We have an automotive industry that has developed over the last 100 years the largest manufacturing industry in the world and we're looking at heading into, committing -- if they do -- wholesale to lithium ion batteries. If they do that, they are going to be relying on a material that isn't really produced yet in anything like the order of magnitude and scale that the automotive industry will use it."
Tahil argues that it simply doesn't make good business sense to commit to a technology pathway were the key resource -- lithium carbonate -- has to be so quickly replaced by far more costly ones, including extracting it from sea water where the concentration of lithium carbonate is 70,000 parts per billion.
He said that when the cheap lithium from Chile came onto the market in the late 1990s, the price dropped 50% and it created the false impression of abundance, and helped spur the growth of the cellphone and laptop computer industry.
"For that scale of industry, where you're talking about a very small battery of maybe 10 watt hours or for a large laptop battery of 100 watt hours, the lithium ion battery is excellent. And there's been the unthinking acceptance that if it's good for the laptop computer, it's good for the electric car without consideration of the scale or magnitude or what happens when we have to increase production by a factor of ten or more to accommodate electric cars."
It was a paper published by the U.S. Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratories in Chicao entitled, "Cost of LIthium Ion Batteries for Vehicles" that piqued Tahill's interest.
"They showed that you need 1.4 kg of lithium carbonate per kilowatt hour of battery. So, that's just the starting point for field calculations; and even if you double that, the energy density in the future, it is still not a pretty picture.
"If you took all the lithium carbonate that we are producing today and put it into small plug-in hybrid battery, an 8 kWh battery (HEV20), you could produce about six million cars, which is one-third of United States sales each year, and ten percent of annual global sales," Tahil said, noting that all current lithium production is currently allocated to other applications.
"So you've got to find new production. There's about 75,000 (metric) tons of lithium carbonate being produced in the world today, and there new deposits coming on stream right now, which by 2010 will raise production to 150,000 tons. So, we're going to have double the lithium carbonate in (three) years time, but that's being driven by demand for consumer electronics where you have at least 20 percent growth rates for laptop computers and mobile phones. Massive demand from the developing world. So, we're going to need more lithium carbonate production on top."
Tahil calculates that in order to give every new car manufactured in America each year an 8 kWh battery comparable to what is in the current batch of Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid conversions, you would need 200,000 tons of lithium carbonate.
"In terms of existing and planned production capacity that exists in the world today, you need to.. [double] that again just to allow the United States to have 8 kWh batteries in its cars. And if you had the new Chevrolet Volt with its 16 kWh battery, you'd need double that again."