Peak Lithium? - Part 2
By Bill Moore
In part one of our dialog on the world's lithium resources and its potential impact on the future mass production of hundreds of millions of large capacity electric car batteries that may someday help power the Chevy Volt or Tesla "Whitebird" electric sedan, William Tahil asked two simple questions: Where is lithium found and how much is there? The answers to those questions are surprising and disconcerting.
As for the where, it turns out that the vast majority of the world's easily extractable lithium metals, in the form of lithium carbonate, is found in only two places on the planet: the Altiplano region that encompasses Chile (the world's largest producer), Argentina and Bolivia. A second similarly remote resource is being developed in Tibet.
In part two, we resume the dialog by asking Tahil how much lithium metal is known in the world. Based on USGS and other sources, he estimates total reserves of 58 million metric tons of lithium carbonate. This translates into some 11 million metric tons of lithium metal.
"This is the total amount that you might reasonable expect to get at possibly at some point in the future," he said.
This doesn't include what Tahil refers to as "nebulus" resources like lithium dissolved in the world's oceans, for which there is no practical and economically viable means to extract, though Saga University in Japan has been exploring this possibility.
"Of that 68 million, to give you an idea of how much you might actually expect to get out, which is then what you call your reserves, in this salt lake in the Atacama Desert, which is, if you like, the Ghawar field of the lithium world, they are getting a recovery factor of 42 percent. All the other salt lakes in the world have a lower concentration than the Atacama."
This means there is less lithium per volume of water, so competitors have to process more water, explained Tahil, adding that there is also the issue of the lithium-to-magnesium ratio. The more magnesium, the harder it is to extract the lithium.
Tahil estimated, optimistically, that the recovery rate could be accelerated to 50 percent of the reserves of lithium carbonate, which equates to 29 million metric tons. By his calculations, it would take 200,000 tons to produce the necessary batteries to equip 17 million new cars and trucks that are sold in the U.S. every year.
"You're getting on (to using) one percent of the recoverable lithium carbonate per year.
"If you're looking at global car production of 60 million plug-in hybrids and you give them a reasonable battery, you can be easily looking at a million tons of lithium carbonate being needed," he said, adding that this doesn't include the growing demand in China for motor vehicles.
"That's three percent (a year) of what is realistically recoverable."
On the charge that he's being over pessimistic, Tahil responded that he's being conservative, "yes, perhaps, certainly realistic." He asked if GM or other carmakers will be wanting to commit to a material with that kind of depletion rate. Tahil's paper doesn't take into account any future recycling and reprocessing technologies that could someday recover lithium for reuse.
Turning to the vast but as yet untapped Salar de Uyuni and Salar de Coipasa salt pans of Southwestern Bolivia, Tahil explained that because of recent changes in Bolivian government policy, it may be difficult for outsiders to develop this resource, which holds as much as 50 percent of the world's known lithium carbonate reserves.
"It's concentration is very low compared to the Atacama," he said. "It's about a fifth and its got a much worse magnesium-to-lithium ratio. So, it's going to be a lot more work, a lot more costly to get the lithium out."
Besides strained political relations with the United States, in part because of America's past support for right-wing huentas, Bolivia has nationalized its oil and gas industry and is likely to impose stiff royalty demands on any non-Bolivian entity wishing to develop the Salar de Uyuni.
In addition to a much stricter financial regime, Tahil also believes that Chile, Bolivia and Argentina will also require tougher environmental oversight, pointing out that the salt pans aren't barren wastes, but fragile and interesting ecosystems, though it could be argued that hasn't prevented the wholesale destruction of the Amazon rain forest on the eastern side of the Andes in Brazil in the name of profits.
Still, Tahil envisions that someday the rare and beautiful pink flamingos that inhabit the Salars of Bolivia could become environmental symbols employed to prevent the haphazard and careless development of the region's salt pans. He also noted that some 50,000 tourists annual visit the region bringing with them important revenue.
On the opposite side of the globe in faraway Tibet, the Chinese have opened a 35,000 ton lithium processing facility that will, in time, make them the largest lithium producer on the planet, passing Chile's SQM, at least for the moment.
"This has happened without much of murmur anywhere else in the world."
Tahil pointed out that the company running the lithium carbonate facility is also China's largest manufacturer of lithium cobalt cathodes for batteries. This will make the Chinese independent of lithium imports. He sees those lithium batteries ultimately showing up in Chinese-made electric cars, which may end up staying in the country to meet their own internal demand.
Finding the Fly in the Ointment
Mister Tahil said that he wasn't entirely surprised to "find the fly in the ointment" as he began pulling the numbers together "given all the other roadblocks the electric car has had placed in its path during the 20th century."
"I could see in just five years time that the industry could grind to a halt; and the car manufacturers might say, 'well we tried to build plug-in hybrids, but there isn't enough lithium, so production will have to be greatly scaled back. So, we'll have to wait for lithium production to build up, and it'll be 'Who Killed the Electric Car?" all over again."
He is also concerned that the "lithium ion [political] juggernaut" will simply get out of control, building lots of public momentum only to crash into the reality of limited availability a few years out.
"What we need is integrated strategic planning to plan a global strategy for transition to oil independence," he stated, "where we look at what are all the technologies that are available to provide motive transport as oil production falls.
"So my reaction was those who are dedicating their lives to getting real EVs onto the market need to look long and hard and realistically at the facts and what their implications are, and not just ignore the other battery technologies that have complementary strengths, which could potentially allow us to progress and achieve what we want much more quickly and in parallel."
He expressed his concern that lithium has become "the fashionable thing at the moment", being adapted from the consumer electronics market to electric cars without a thorough analysis of its sustainability.
If Not Lithium, What Then?
Meridian International Research researched the various battery technologies for electric vehicles in 2005 and of all the chemistries it analyzed, sodium nickel chloride and zinc air stood out, Tahil said. The first option, sodium nickel chloride was developed in the 1980s and is known as the ZEBRA battery. He characterizes it as relatively cheap and proven technology with a potential cost in mass production of $150/kWh compared to $350/kWh for lithium ion.
"It has half to a third the nickel content of nickel metal hydride. It has high cycle life. It can be recycled for the stainless steel industry by simply melting it down... just through it into a smelter... use for making stainless steel."
The ZEBRA-class battery also doesn't require the same level of thermal-runaway protection that lithium does. "The sodium nickel chloride is fail-safe in overcharge and over-discharge. It tolerates cell failures, so that performance degrades, but there is no safety issue, which there still is with lithium ion.
"And the headline figure is, of course, with sodium nickel chloride is you have 120Wh/kg in a finished battery pack with its control electronics today, in a finished package, off-the-shelf. The ion phosphate and lithium manganate cathodes are still only at 80 to 9 watt hours per kilo just at cell level and less when you add on the [control] electronics."
Tahil observed that in 1998 Mercedes was about to launch an A-Class sedan powered by the ZEBRA battery (which still performs equal to and better than the fuel cell version) when the program was killed as Daimler merged with Chrysler. In place of the ZEBRA A-Class electric car, Chrysler built a couple hundred EPIC electric mini-van for the California MOU period in the late 90's and early 2000 period, then killed the program when the courts ruled again the state.
"If you took the A-Class today with the battery... improvements since then you'd have a car with a180-mile all-electric range."
Tahil agreed that while nickel is the most expensive part of the battery, it is a metal that is far less constrained than lithium. "It's a major industrial metal that is mined all over the world. You're talking an order of magnitude (1000x) more availability of nickel than lithium."
The other standout chemistry in his view is zinc-air, which also goes back several decades in development.
"The great attraction of zinc-air is very high energy density... with an energy density of 400 kWh/kg" as a primary battery. It is this chemistry that powers hearing aid batteries. He pointed out that is four-times the energy density of the best lithium ion batteries available. Zinc also happens to be "extremely cheap and extremely abundant."
"It is the fourth most abundantly produced metal in the world, after iron, aluminum and copper."
While there may be 30 million tons of recoverable lithium carbonate in the world, there is an estimated 220 million tons of zinc..."and far more than that accessible. So ten times as much."
He estimates current worldwide production of zinc at 9 million tons annually.
"If you were to equip the 1 billion cars in the world today with a small zinc-air battery, it would take nine months of global zinc production."
Comparatively, Tahil calculates in his white paper that it would take 75 years to accomplish the same goal at present lithium production rates. He thinks that carmakers are going to have to carefully weigh their options as to which chemistries offer them the ability build simple, cheap, affordable, dependable electric vehicle batteries before they make any long-range commitments.
He pointed out that the chief drawback of zinc-air is its short cycle life, comparable to a conventional lead-acid battery at upwards of 500 cycles. "This is an area where work needs to be done. There are some companies that say them have...solved the technical problems that contribute to [short cycle life]."
"But it's a question of economics and costs, as well," he continued. Because zinc is so cheap and abundant, it might actually make economic sense to have the battery replaced once a year when the car goes in for service. The zinc oxide can be recycled and reprocessed into new batteries. "There is already a well-established zinc recycling industry."
Tahil can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at +33 3 32 42 95 49 in Normandy, France.
The audio for part two is also available at the following URL: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/wtahil_part2.mp3
As a result of this interview, SQM, the world's largest lithium producer in Chile has contacted EV World and wishes to present their side of this question, so we hope to continue the global discussion on this vitally important topic.