Electric cars are often spoken of as if they will turn the tide against the current fleet of petroleum junkies. But we may be far from that nirvana.
People who have been watching the lithium market will tell you that there may not be enough lithium for all those batteries that will be needed for electric cars, laptops and other devices.
These days we do not only talk about peak oil but also about peak lithium – which environmentalist would have thought we would have to contend with that scenario?
Economic principles that govern peak oil will apply to peak lithium. Lithium is derived from two predominant sources: brine and spodumene. Lithium produced from spodumene is cheaper than that from brine because the brine requires much processing to remove impurities.
Hectorite clay, geothermal brine and oilfield brine are all additional sources of lithium that still need to be developed.
But, as is the case with the peak oil debate, there are two sides to the lithium story – one says there is enough to last us thousands of years and the other says we only have a few years’ supply left. The devil is in the detail.
Again, like the oil story, this is a dispute between merely listing resource estimates and considering the lithium that is economically recoverable. While lithium is abundant, not all of it can be recovered to provide the chemical-grade lithium carbonate necessary for use in batteries and in other technological applications.
Batteries currently account for 20% of lithium demand and total lithium demand is growing at 4% to 5% a year. For the lithium used in car batteries, the lithium grade has to be about 99,95% lithium carbonate, and the availability of this grade of lithium will always be less than that of industrial lithium carbonate.
Any widespread mining of current lithium deposits would lead to extensive environ- mental damage – a rather odd consequence of trying to go green on one side of the world while leaving relatively pristine areas eco- logically trashed to meet world demand.
Estimates by Meridian International Research indicate that demand for portable electronics at 25% at year will allow enough lithium carbonate to power 1,5-million Chevy-Volt-type vehicles by 2015. The message is that there isn’t enough.
The brines themselves are derived from the leaching of volcanic rocks, like the high-altitude salars found in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Tibet and China. The quantity and quality of brine are determined by solar evaporation rates for each square kilometre of the evaporation pond.
The quality of lithium is influenced by the amount of impurities, like the magnesium per part of lithium that needs to be processed in order to recover the pure lithium. The location of the lithium sites also determines the cost associated with the recovery of the mineral. The more remote the site, the more expensive the mineral.
The largest economically recoverable deposits (70%) of lithium are found in what is called the Lithium Triangle – Bolivia, Chile and Argentina – and the second-largest are in China and Tibet. The Bolivian Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and can be seen from space as a bright object of magnificent beauty.
The uncertainty associated with the availability of a commodity because of its natural scarcity or an increase in price has led to strategic acquisitions and control over other types of commodities, such as rare earths, which are essential in many clean technologies.
Increasingly, countries are starting to control access to deposits and the workings of this market. The Chileans passed a law in 1982 to nationalise lithium assets. According to the Meridian International Report, 70% of the world’s lithium will come under State control because of its globally strategic value and importance to the countries that have it.
Against this background, conventional fleets of cars may well continue to dominate mobility markets, except that they are likely to be hybrids or be powered by more slick and highly efficient combustion engines (and here improvements are happening phenomenally in terms of new engineering).
If lithium is confirmed to have a peak similar to the oil peak, this will drive a search for alternative types of batteries or storage technologies. Rapid innovation in battery technology is key to unlocking the full potential of electric cars. It may not all be gloomy after all.