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piles of lithium carbonate-rich salt on the Salar de Uyuni in the high Andres of Bolivia
Piles of lithium carbonate-rich salt on the Salar de Uyuni in the high Andres of Bolivia. French battery maker Bollore recently penned an agreement with the Bolivian government for access to this resource to help power its jointly-developed Pininfarina B0 electric car. Photo credit: Torgeir Bull.

Where the Lithium Will Come From

R. Keith Evans refines his projections on lithium supplies.

By EV World

Electric cars made a big splash at the Paris Auto Show this month. More than half-a-dozen pure battery electric cars debuted, a few as concepts, but most as pre-production prototypes.

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While their designs and underlying technologies varied, the common denominator was they all use lithium ion batteries and for the moment, virtually all of that lithium comes from a handful of resources, mainly in South America and Tibet.

This geographical -- and geological -- fact of life led the French daily evening newspaper Le Monde to ask, "Will Bolivia be the Dubai of 2050?"

The question is being raised because most of the easily (cheaply) extractable lithium -- the lightest metal on the periodic chart -- comes from high altitude salt pans in the Andes along the border of Chile -- the largest producer -- Bolivia and Argentina. Prior to the exploitation of these relatively-lithium-rich resources, most of the lithium refined in the world came from hard rock, pegmatite sources of spodumene. Unable to compete with the less-expensive salt brines of South America, most pegmatite mining of lithium closed down.

In his July 2008 paper entitled An Abundance of Lithium - Part 2, lithium mining expert R. Keith Evans challenges the assertions of William Tahil, the French-based researcher who most recently raised the issue of lithium supplies, questioning in two succeeding papers, whether there were sufficient supplies of lithium carbonate to provide for the expected growth in battery-powered electric-drive vehicles, including pure electric, plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids. Even experimental fuel cell hybrids rely on lithium-based batteries; and increasingly, bicycles, scooters and motorcycles are shifting away from lead-acid and NiMH batteries to lithium because of its lighter weight and energy density.

In An Abundance of Lithium - Part 2, Evans refines his estimates of sources of lithium around the planet starting with pegmatites, which can be found from Canada to Zaire. U.S. deposits in North Carolina have low, but not necessarily unworkable 0.6% concentrations of lithium.

Evan's rebuttal of William Tahil's May 29, 2008 paper, The Trouble with Lithium 2: Under the Microscope intensifies when he moves on to Continental Brines, contending that many of Tahil's assertions are "totally nonsensical." Since Evans has actually helped survey these deposits, he feels confident that his estimates of the reserves found the Salar de Hombre Muerto, de Rincon, de Uyuni, and de Atacama are fairly representative of their potential.

Mr. Evans goes on in his 10-page rebuttal to list other potential lithium resources including geothermal brines, oil field brines, hectorites and jadarites. His own reanalysis estimates the total global reserves at 29.79 million tonnes of lithium, up from his initial projection of 28.42 million tonnes.

He concludes his treatise with an admission that the question of supply and demand was "beyond the scope" of his original paper. However, he believes that Mister Tahil's demand projections are "extreme," writing...

He envisages the wholesale abandonment of the existing motor vehicle fleet and assumes that a very high percentage of all new vehicles will be Volt-sized. This ignores the fact that most older vehicles will continue to run on gasoline or biofuels and others will be powered by other battery systems, natural gas and possibly hydrogen, fuel cells and capacitors.
Evans cites an SQM -- the world's largest lithium carbonate producer, based in Chile -- projection that sees 10% of new cars by 2015 being powered by lithium batteries, rising to 20% by 2020. This would increase demand from the 2007 level of 85,000 tonnes to 160,000 tones by 2015. He sees the price of lithium inevitably rising with demand, but notes that "the cost of carbonate in batteries is a very small percentage of the battery cost;" a conclusion supported by many lithium battery makers with whom EV World has spoken.

However, it should be noted that Toyota this summer founded a separate advanced battery research lab in Japan for the express purpose of investigating other promising battery chemistries beyond lithium.

Times Article Viewed: 21403
Published: 09-Oct-2008

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