Keith Johnson at The WSJ has a post on the "peak lithium" question - Peak Lithium: Will Supply Fears Drive Alternative Batteries?.
Saudis like to say that the stone age didn’t end for a lack of stones. But could a lack of lithium end the electric car age before it begins?
“Peak lithium” is back in focus, as the New York Times looks at Bolivia’s quest to cash in on the world’s biggest reserves of lithium, a key component in batteries. Simply put, global automakers and battery makers need to ensure a steady supply of lithium to power the expected electric-car revolution, but Bolivia’s populist government and its embrace of resource nationalism raises a lot of concerns about access to the country’s mineral wealth. TIME recently did a big takeout on Bolvia’s lithium, too.
Concerns about global supplies of lithium are a lot like the debate over peak oil. Some experts believe the huge increase in electric cars will actually strain the world’s lithium supplies in a few years; as with peak oil, “above-ground” factors like Bolivia’s politics may be just as critical as geology. Other experts figure lithium supplies are ample and exploding demand will just juice more lithium exploration, as happened with oil.
Either way, though, as hybrid and electric vehicles take a bigger share of the market, that threatens to push up lithium prices. That would make batteries, the costliest part of electric cars, even pricier, further threatening the economics of the electric-car revolution. (Ford on Tuesday announced its lithium-ion battery supplier.)A recent report by Lux Research called lithium availability the “ultimate limit” on electric cars’ future.
So what’s the alternative? Skip lithium altogether. Just as thin-film solar-power companies gained in appeal when global polysilicon supplies were tight, batteries that use materials other than lithium are gaining attention now. “Forward-thinking automakers will aggressively pursue alternative chemistries. As auto manufacturers come to terms with limited lithium supplies, they will increasingly consider alternative chemistries like zinc-air or other batteries made from more abundant elements,” Lux said in the report.
Toyota started researching a zinc-air battery, initially out of safety concerns (lithium-ion batteries sometimes explode). Germay’s RWE recently poured more research money into zinc-air batteries, too. Zinc-air and other metal-air batteries sidestep the lithium supply issue.
But if alternative batteries are still in the lab, that’s because they face a host of hurdles lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydrate batteries don’t share. Most importantly, zinc-air batteries aren’t rechargable and have a short lifespan—crucial negatives for the auto market. Some alternative batteries suffer from other shortcomings, too, including weight. That will leave lithium and existing nickel-metal batteries to share the global market in coming years, Lux figures.
One commenter at the WSJ referred to this article at AutoBlogGreen which quotes some industry PR saying all is fine - Got lithium? Lots.
When companies need to know about future market conditions for various commodities, they hire a firm with the expertise to evaluate the situation and report back. For instance, as Mitsubishi was mulling the possible future of electric cars equipped with lithium ion batteries, they hired TRU Group to do an analysis on future battery options. Usually, ordinary folks don't get to see the results of this kind of work, but in the case here, we can. In a rare move, Mitsubishi has allowed their consultants to release some of the findings about the global markets for lithium through to 2020 and that's just what they did at the IM Lithium Supply & Markets Conference Santiago 2009.
The results are comforting to those worried about a sudden upsurge in the production of electric cars using lithium ion batteries, especially over the next few years. Because of the sudden recession, there is actually an oversupply of the mineral right now and this should continue until about 2013. It doesn't seem as though there will be a "peak lithium" after that either. Although brine deposits, like those in Bolivia and China, may offer the easiest and cheapest supplies to extract, a moderate price rise would support mining here in America, where we appear to have quite a bit.
The same commenter referred to a recent lithium conference in South America. One presenter was Keith Evans, who had this to day:
In my presentation at the Santiago conference to which reference has been made earlier, I tabulated lithium resources totaling approximately 30.0 million tonnes equivalent to approximately 160,0 million tonnes of lithium carbonate-the primary feedstock for the lithium chemicals used in lithium-ion batteries. Presentations subsequent to mine increased the tonnage and other estimates by SQM and in a paper to which I made reference had somewhat higher figures.
Of my total, 17.6 million tonnes occur in Salar-type continental brines as are found in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, China and Tibet, 7.65 million tonnes in pegmatites, 1.7 million tonnes in geothermal and oil field brines, 2.0 million tonnes in the clay mineral Hectorite and 0.85 million tonnes in a newly discovered boron/lithium mineral named Jadarite.
Of the brines the largest resource is in the Salar de Atacama, Chile, (the world’s current leading source of lithium) with 6.9 million tonnes.
The Salar de Uyuni is the second largest brine source. This occurrence receives massive publicity but, in fact, contains only 18% of the world’s resources. It is not the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium” and the large scale use of lithium ion batteries is not in any way dependent upon its development. It could possibly become a significant source of supply but in all respects it is inferior to the Salar de Atacama and some other salares.
Pegmatites are widely distributed throughout the world and suggestions have been made that switching to spodumene as a source for chemical production would result in a major increase in prices. Most Chinese production currently is from spodumene at costs estimated at about $2.00/lb using domestic ores and concentrates imported from Western Australia. A former North Carolina producer estimates that production from there currently would be at about $2.50/lb for carbonate.
These are higher than Chilean costs but if a massive demand materializes they can be readily absorbed by the battery industry where lithium costs represent 3-5% of the total battery cost. At current carbonate prices a vehicle requiring, for example, 6.6/lbs in a hybrid would contain lithium costing $20 in a battery selling for many thousands of dollars.
Regarding the statement concerning “untested technologies for lithium recoveries” Western Lithium appear confident that their hectorite project will be viable as does Simbol Mining with its process for geothermal and other possible brines. The Jadarite deposit in Serbia appears to be a uniquely attractive resource.
Of the various sources a question mark must remain on the viability of recovery from Smackover Formation oil field brines but in my tabulation it represents only 2.5% of the listed resources.
And as another commenter, David Ahlport, noted:
Well, the Federal Government could simply just do eminent domain on the patent for large form-factor Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries, which Chevron now holds.
That, or if they combine this technology with this one. You got yourself a nearly scarcity-proof battery source: