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Bolivian president Evo Morales
Bolivian president Evo Morales is determined to insure that the lithium reserves in the Salar de Uyuni are developed to the benefit of the Bolivian people.

The Illusion of Lithium Batteries?

A critique of Jack Lifton's review of Bolivia's lithium reserves potential

By Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderón

Jack Lifton has just renewed the debate on lithium availability for the transition to electric propulsion in the world. In his recent thought-provoking article, he claims that:

...the production of lithium-ion battery packs for vehicle propulsion is and will always be limited by the rate of production for lithium, because even if all of the mineable lithium deposits were exhausted only enough lithium would be produced to build 450,000,000 vehicles per year at equilibrium between mining and recycling at a 100% recovery rate.

Since the current fleet of cars is already about 750 million he seems to suggest a lithium supply crunch in a few years if the world continues to bet on "this metal only" for the transition to electric impulsion. In this context, he concludes that:

The ideal future for the electrified car is one of lead-carbon batteries for short range city cars, nickel metal hydride batteries for long range moderate performance, and lithium-ion batteries for high performance long range.

As persuasive as it might be, Lifton's piece is not the last word on the subject. A careful scrutiny of it leaves the article with very little ground to stand on its own and evidences quite a few contradictions that seriously affect the thrust of the argument. In the following four points I synthesize my critique.

First, Lifton utilizes the terms "resources" and "reserves" interchangeably, while excluding any discussion about "reserve base" as defined by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). As I mentioned in a previous article, this can be a source of confusion.

After reading Lifton's contribution, one is left with some doubts as to whether he really knows what all these terms mean. With respect to Bolivia, most analysts agree that there are no reserve figures available at the moment and that a complete feasibility study is pending to find out the real potential of the Salar of Uyuni. Nevertheless, the known resource quantities appear to remain quite encouraging; at least that is how a number of interested foreign companies in exploiting the world's largest salt lake think.

Second, regarding the high Li/Mg ratio of the Salar of Uyuni in comparison with other Salars (i.e. Atacama and Hombre Muerto), I wonder how in the world Lifton can conclude that:

For Bolivia's high magnesium brines there is no practical process known at this time to remove enough magnesium, even on a large scale basis, so that it would not "poison" the lithium produced in the sense that the lithium would contain so much magnesium that it would be ineffective as a battery electrode. Thus for use in making batteries this material could be infinitely expensive to process to "battery grade" and thus useless. Bolivia thus has reserves at present of no useful lithium producible from its brines.

For evidence on this astonishing conclusion, he refers only to some anecdotal information provided by one of his friends. Although I am not an specialist either, I understand there are indeed some effective ways to go about the high Li/Mg ratio problem. Following William Tahil, for instance, one of those could be "pre-treating the raw brine with Calcium Hydroxide to reduce the Magnesium content before evaporation commences". Likewise, his argument that Bolivia`s reserves are useless to produce "battery grade" lithium is at most speculative without real technical support. To conclude such a thing, one may first have to test Bolivian lithium carbonate once it is available. This will have to wait until next year since only by then Bolivia will begin to produce the compound, albeit on an experimental basis.

Lifton, then goes on to argue that because of the high Li/Mg ratio found in Bolivia, "since the 1978 studies the successful development of lithium producing industries has gone ahead in both Chile and Argentina but not in Bolivia!". Here he simply doesn't have clue. For one thing, at least two more studies on lithium resources have been performed during the period 1979 -1992. For another, as I have sustained for more than 16 years, the true reason behind the apparent lack of interest in the Salar of Uyuni since 1993 had to do with the prevailing market conditions of lithium.

Third, I don't really see what point Lifton is trying to make when he points out that in order to produce lithium Bolivia will have to produce potassium. I just wonder, so what? SQM, the largest lithium producer of the world has been making much more money out of potassium than of lithium for quite some time. Bolivia could follow a similar approach, taking into account, of course, that market conditions for lithium as opposed to potassium now may be dramatically different than one or two years ago. Indeed, nowadays it might be entirely plausible to exploit not only lithium but also potassium and boron, all at the same time, that is, as part of the same project.

Fourth, perhaps the weakest aspect of Lifton's analysis is that referring to some numbers he gives on lithium availability for the battery revolution. Here he completely misses the point. By using a totally wrong figure for the quantity of Lithium Carbonate equivalent required per 1 kwh of energy in a standard Li-ion battery, he ends up with unbelieveable numbers that contaminate the whole paper and reduce it to scratch. Once this error is corrected, Lifton's conclusions about lithium availability are left without any meaningful content. I invite you to redo all Lifton's calculations on lithium availability using the conventional figure of 1,4 Kg of Lithium Carbonate Equivalent required per 1Kwh, mentioned in my 2008 EV World.Com article, bearing in mind that this number may have been reduced substantially, as I reported in my presentation at the inaugural Lithium Supply and Markets Conference held last January 2009 in Chile.

Times Article Viewed: 6125
Published: 22-Apr-2009

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