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flooded salt lake in Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni
The stark and hauntingly beautiful, as well as remote, Salar de Uyuni in the Altiplano of Bolivia. The salt pans occasionally flood, creating a vast, but shallow lake, that quickly evaporates leaving behind the mineral deposits rich in lithium carbonate, the key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries. Image courtesy of Photos of Bolivia.

Peak Lithium or Lithium in Abundance?

The debate on the future availability of lithium appears far from settled.

By Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderón

A recent controversy has arisen around the availability of lithium for the apparently irreversible transition to electric propulsion in the global automobile industry.

Beginning January 2007, that is since William Tahil´s white paper “The Trouble with Lithium” was first placed on the web, a growing number of analysts began to conjecture about the real possibility of substituting oil in car transport. Tahil´s main contention was that LiIon batteries – that is, state-of-the-world battery technology at the time - may not be sustainable for Electric Vehicle (EV) applications and that it was crucial to turn instead to ZnAir and Zebra NaNiCl / NaFeCl battery technologies to meet “the urgent need to reduce the consumption of oil immediately at all costs or face the consequences of a meltdown in civilization”.

Notwithstanding Tahil´s persuasive arguments, in the last 15 months or so practically all global vehicle producers as well as start-up smaller firms have continued to incorporate lithium into their plans to developing the best battery technology to power the plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars of the near future, and little has been reported in terms of major advances of the two batteries mentioned by Tahil. According to a recent story on News Trends, published from Russia, Toyota Corporation appears to be, in fact, interested in developing Zinc Air batteries for use in hybrid technology, but implementation of this project may have to wait until 2020.

From a different vein, Keith Evans in his March 2008 article “Lithium in Abundance”, also disseminated through the web, has argued that “concerns regarding lithium availability for hybrid or electric vehicle batteries or other foreseeable applications are unfounded”. This is based on his report that “lists a total of 28.5 million tonnes of lithium equivalent to nearly 150 million of tonnes of lithium carbonate – equal to 1775 years of supply at the current rate of demand (approximately 16,000 tpa Li). Lithium in pegmatites, continental brines, geothermal brines, oilfield brines and hectorites total 7.6 million, 17.7 million, 0.3 million, 0.75 million and 2.0 million tonnes respectively”.

In his comment on Evans´ article, Tahil has argued that “claiming 30M tonnes of lithium is exactly the same as claiming trillions of barrels of oil in shales and tar sands. It is irrelevant”.

Furthermore, these numbers are not consistent with a rather more updated, detailed and documented account of geological reserves of lithium included in a 2004 specialized book (See Donald E. Garrett, “Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium Chloride”, Academic Press, 2004 – I am indebted to William Tahil for this reference) which concludes that there are only around 14,7 million tonnes of lithium in brine deposits and around 1,6 million tonnes of the metal in ore deposits, totalling 16,3 million tonnes of lithium in the world. Interestingly enough, both Evans´ and Garrett´s estimates of lithium reserves in the Salar of Atacama (Chile), where most world production comes from nowadays, are considerably larger than the figures that the U.S. Geological Service has been reporting for the last 15 years or so, showing that as production takes off, reserves tend to increase because production operators both become more knowledgeable of the existing reserves and face more incentives to explore new fields. In addition, following the U.S. Geological Service, the current world demand for lithium is not 16,000 tpa, but 25,000 tpa.

This evidence appears to give more support to Tahil than to Evans. However, there are at least two caveats in Tahil´s approach.

First, substitution of the global automotive parc will take some time. For one thing, Clean Air Acts signed in 14 states of the U.S. are not as ambitious. It will take years before the complete fleet of new cars put into the market is replaced by some sort of lithium-powered electric vehicles. For another, high oil prices are an incentive to look for new alternative sources of energy. So lithium will not be alone in this race. Alternative sources of energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal, compressed air, etc. energy will also prevent a “once-and-for-all” adoption of lithium batteries. In this connection, a transition to electric propulsion will most likely take place gradually during the next 20 years or so.

Within this time frame, lithium reserves are likely to augment not only because some new (untapped) fields (e.g. Salar of Uyuni, Bolivia) will be put into production, but also due to high lithium prices resulting from an ever-increasing demand for the metal. Efforts made by Project Better Place, for instance, to completely electrify both Israel´s and Denmark´s new automotive parcs by 2011 or 2012 or even Nissan´s announcement to introduce electric cars into the US market in 2010 are only an indication of what lies ahead in the near future but not necessarily a clear signal of an inmmediate interruption of oil demand in favor of lithium. Besides, not all major car producers will be engaged in an all-electric endeavour; indeed, most of them, including General Motors, are pointing to plug-in hybrids whose demand for lithium is most likely to be relatively smaller than that of electric cars. Somewhat surprisingly, according to Nissan Motor Co. Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn, even the EVs to be produced by this global car manufacturer “will always have the possibility of having a range extender”, namely “a gas-powered engine that recharges the battery and keeps the vehicle moving after the initial plug-in charge expires” (See Nissan May Offer 'Range-Extended Electric Car, WSJ, 16 March 2008). So concerns about unavailability of lithium for the transition to electric propulsion at this point seem a little odd.

Second, major battery breakthroughs may have been (and will likely continue to be) made, for example, in the field of Nanotechnology which could result in less use of lithium and thereby lighter batteries. In other words, as technology progresses less and less lithium will be required to power electric vehicles. So, again, this also undermines the argument that the world would be facing a “peak lithium” even before the lithium era has been inaugurated.

In this context, in a comment on Bill Moore´s article “Lithium in Abundance” dated April 17, 2008, I had argued that it all now indicates that we are at the advent of the lithium era (See my April 2008 EVWorld blog) or a new ´techno-economic paradigm´ (the sixth one since the industrial revolution - See my January EVWorld blog) with lithium as its key factor. In effect, the three conditions for a key factor (such as ´oil´ in the fourth techno-economic paradigm and ´microchips´ in the fifth) suggested by Christopher Freeman and Carlota Perez already in 1988 in a path-breaking book on technical change and economic theory are now more likely to be fulfilled, namely:

(i) clearly perceived low and rapidly falling relative cost;

(ii) apparently almost unlimited availability of supply over long periods; and

(iii) clear potential for the use or incorporation of the new key factor in many products and processes throughout the economic system.

Reasons of space prevented me from elaborating a bit more on this argument. I now take the opportunity to do so.

To begin with, as I was writing the comment, I thought we were at the advent of the lithium era or a techno-economic paradigm with lithium as its key factor because the government of Bolivia had decided a few days earlier to start exploiting the planet´s largest reserves of lithium located in the Salar of Uyuni (Ibid). In my view, this was a crucial decision, one which in the coming years may shape the technological development of one of the most dynamic industries of the world economy: the automotive industry. Over a year ago, Tahil himself was rather skeptical about this possibility, arguing that: “In the current climate, the Bolivian government may not permit the wholesale industrialization of the Uyuni salt flats, a unique and ancient ecosystem, just to provide motive power to the developed world”.

Although it is too early to jump to any conclusions as to how successful will be the Bolivian government in its effort to go alone in this endeavour, that is, without any private (either local or foreign) interests, the truth of the matter is that, against all odds, the Government has been able to put together a plan to industrialize the Uyuni salt fields, which, among other things, calls for a production of 1,000 tonnes a month of lithium metal equivalent begining 2013. I will refrain at this point from making any comment on the timing and/or the magnitude and relevance of the Bolivian plan. These important topics will be part of another essay I intend to work on next.

For the time being and from all the arguments stated above, it is clear that Bolivia´s incursion into the lithium market will contribute to fulfilling conditions (i) and (ii) for lithium to become a key factor of the new techno-economic paradigm.

As for condition (iii), it is also evident that the current list of lithium applications is large and tends to increase: (a) in ceramic glasses to improve resistance to extreme temperature changes; (b) to lower process melting points, and as a glazing agent, in ceramic (frits) and glass manufacturing; (c) to lower the melting point of the cryolic bath in primary aluminium production; (d) as a catalyst in the production of synthetic rubber, plastics and pharmaceutical productos; (e) as a reduction agent in the synthesis of many organic compounds; (f) in specialty lubricants and greases used for working in extreme temperature and change conditions; (g) in the production of both primary and secondary batteries; (h) in air conditioning and dehumidification systems; (i) in aluminium-lithium alloys in aircraft production; (j) as an addition to cement as a way of preventing concrete cancer; (k) as carbon dioxide absorption; and (l) in desinfecting water (See Evensperger et al, “The lithium industry: Its recent evolution and future prospects”, 2006, on the web).

Times Article Viewed: 27633
Published: 22-May-2008

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