Lithium in Abundance
By Bill Moore
In R. Keith Evans view William Tahil should stick to talking about automotive batteries and leave the forecasting of lithium reserves to him.
It was in early 2007 that I interviewed Tahil from his base of operations in France about his white paper forecasting a future shortage of lithium and the potential consequences of having just a few nations (Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and China) controlling most of the production. I titled that two-part article Peak Lithium?.
That interview elicited more requests for reprints than any we've ever published. And according to Evans -- who is Welsh -- Tahil's conclusions also caused consternation in the automotive and advanced battery industries.
I got a tip off of that concern when A123 Technologies' Ric Fulop pulled me aside during a dinner reception at last year's EVS23 in Anaheim and suggested I should look into the question further. He had and came to the conclusion that there was plenty of lithium available, more than enough to meet the needs of all the electric cars the planet could afford to build.
It was Evans' son Jonathan who recently alerted me that his father, a respected geologist who has been tracking professionally the lithium industry since the 1970s had posted a paper contradicting Tahil's reserve estimates. In a private telephone conversation with the elder Evans, I learned that it was Tahil's original paper that spurred him to offer his own educated assessment of global lithium reserves.
The question of lithium reserves long predates William Tahil's concerns, according to Evan's 17-page An Abundance of Lithium white paper, published in March 2008. In 1975, the US Geological Survey convened a symposium to discuss what was then forecast as a future shortage of lithium (from 2000 onward) to use in fusion power and future generations of energy storage batteries.
Evans was a member of the sub-panel charged with reporting on the availability of the raw material, then extracted largely from pegmatite deposits in North America. But the discovery of high concentrations of lithium carbonate in brine deposits in the high deserts of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina not only ended the debate about future reserves but produced a new and significantly cheaper source of lithium carbonate.
While discussing his paper via telephone, I asked Evans to describe these salar deposits since he had not only visited them, but negotiated with the government of Chile for the rights to extract and process them on behalf of Lithium Corporation of America. He explained that the dried up lake beds are, in fact, still somewhat liquid below the half meter of broken crust that constant thawing and freezing buckles into a jagged, surreal landscape.
Imagine, he told me, the American Great Salt Lake without any fresh water replenishment. It gradually dries up, the moisture slow evaporating to a depth of 18-19 inches, below that the salt brine concentrates more and more with each passing year, finally stabilizing at a point where no more evaporation can take place.
To extract the lithium, the viscous fluid below the crust is pumped out into a series of evaporation ponds that further concentrate the minerals until is reaches a "greasy" consistency that is high in magnesium and 5% lithium. This is then transported out of the remote high desert to the coast where it is further refined to pure lithium, which is then shipped in barrels or bags to industrial customers for use in everything from ceramics to steel to batteries.
Because Mother Nature does most of the work in producing lithium carbonate, it is the "greenest" source of lithium we know of. Any other source requires significantly more energy for processing, thus increasing the price.
As to the issue of American lithium resources, Evans pointed out that a single geothermal well in southern California can produce enough lithium to meet all of the world's current demand for lithium. There are also lithium-bearing clays called Hectorite and oilfield brines that contain commercially-viable concentrations of lithium, though they would be more expensive to produce compared to the high desert brines in the Andes and Tibet.
How much lithium is there in the world in Evan's professional analysis? He estimates it at 28.4 million tonnes of lithium, which is equivalent to 150 million tonnes of lithium carbonate. Current world demand is 16,000 tonnes.
His conclusion is that "concerns regarding lithium availability for hybrid or electric vehicle batteries or other foreseeable applications are unfounded."
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