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Chile's Atacama Drylake

Chile's Atacama desert currently produces the largest market share of the world's lithium carbonate, which are processed into the lithium used to make advanced batteries, as well as other products including medicine. The brine lakes of this remote desert region are the lithium equivalent to the Ghawar oil fields in Saudi Arabia.

Peak Lithium?

Part one of exclusive two-part interview with William Tahil, Director of Research for Meridian International Research.

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.

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