Peak Lithium

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Ugo Bardi (2014), in his book “Extracted” points out that even the minerals needed for nuclear fusion are finite, and the “infinitely abundant energy” thought possible at the beginning of the atomic age isn’t possible.  here’s why:

“In practice, past attempts to obtain controlled nuclear fusion as a source of energy had hinged on the possibility of fusing a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium. But not even the controlled deuterium-deuterium reaction is considered feasible, and the current effort focuses on the reaction of a still heavier hydrogen isotope, tritium, with deuterium. Tritium is not a mineral resource, as it is so unstable that it doesn’t exist on Earth. But it can be created by bombarding a lithium isotope, Li-6, with neutrons that in turn can be created by the deuterium-tritium fusion reaction. (In this sense a fusion reactor is another kind of “breeder” reactor, as it produces its own fuel.) However, since the mineral resources of lithium are limited, and since the Li-6 isotope forms only 7.5 percent of the total, the problem of mineral depletion exists. 58″

Vikström, H., et al. October 2013. Lithium availability and future production outlooks. Applied Energy 110:252-266.

The availability of lithium could  be a problem for fulfilling the International Energy Agency’s “Blue Map Scenarios” to electrify the car fleet if lithium-ion batteries are to be used, so other battery technologies might have to be implemented for enabling an electrification of road transports. Several recent studies have used different methods to estimate whether the lithium production can meet an increasing demand, especially from the transport sector, where lithium-ion batteries are the most likely technology for electric cars. The reserve and resource estimates of lithium vary greatly between different studies and the question whether the annual production rates of lithium can meet a growing demand is seldom adequately explained. This study presents a review and compilation of recent estimates of quantities of lithium available for exploitation and discusses the uncertainty and differences between these estimates. Also, mathematical curve fitting models are used to estimate possible future annual production rates. This estimation of possible production rates are compared to a potential increased demand of lithium if the International Energy Agency’s Blue Map Scenarios are fulfilled regarding electrification of the car fleet.

Zoellner, T. March 1, 2011.  Back to Land Lines? Cell Phones May Be Dead by 2015   The Fiscal Times

Car manufacturer Mitsubishi has predicted a worldwide supply crisis by 2015 if new reserves are not discovered.

Lithium is the lightest metal in nature.  They’re in many essential technologies from computters to cell phones, and their use keeps increasing — In China, cell phone sales were up 57 percent last year; in India, cell phone use is expected to double by 2014.

The More We Use It the More We Lose It. Lithium is difficult to find and mine.  The best way is to dig under beds of dried lakes with high saline contents, where volcanoes in wet climates leached groundwater into a landlocked basin tens of thousands of years ago — not exactly in your backyard. Very few places on the globe match these exacting conditions, and some of them are politically problematic. The world’s best reserves are in the Bolivian Andes.  Bolivian President Evo Morales has said he wants the nation to mine its own lithium, but he has discouraged foreign investors and it’s uncertain if Bolivia can mine their reserves without outside help.

Crisis by 2015?
A shortage could affect the price of laptop computers, as well as cause a slowdown in the production of hybrid electric cars that could cripple new initiatives in Detroit.    Obama has called for at least 1 million of these plug-in vehicles on the roads by then. Conventional nickel-cadmium batteries do not allow them to store as much energy or drive as far as lithium, which has been a major impediment to the future success of electric cars. New advances in nanotechnology may allow more lithium than ever before to be stored inside hybrid car batteries, as much as 10 times the previous levels, putting even more pressure on global supplies.

May 28, 2008. Moore, B. Peak Lithium?

[I have shortened, highlighted, and reworded some of this article, see the original for the full story]

“We need to take a conservative and realistic assessment of the resource base and the large-scale sustainability of lithium batteries,” according to William Tahil, Director of Research for Meridian International Research in his paper “The Trouble with Lithium

Until about 20 years ago, lithium was mined, milled and refined from a mineral called spodumene with a great deal of effort, caustic materials and energy. Now it’s mainly extracted from Chile’s altiplano brine lakes where the sun does the work by evaporating the water and is now the world’s leading supplier (78% from this region). China is starting to exploit a similar region in Tibet).

When the price of lithium from Chile dropped in half in the late 1990s, industry falsely assumed it was now abundant, and became widely used in the cellphone and laptop computer industry.

But there are no other sources in the world that are or will be economically recoverable. Nevada is in decline after 40 years production, and it’s definitely not economically feasible to extract lithium from sea water at a concentration of 70,000 parts per billion.

If the automotive industry is going to commit to a lithium carbonate that isn’t produced yet in anything like the order of magnitude and scale that the automotive industry will use it, this makes no business sense. There’s an unthinking acceptance that if it’s good for the laptop computer, it’s good for the electric car despite the fact you’d need to increase production by at least a factor of 10 or more.

The U.S. Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratories, “Cost of LIthium Ion Batteries for Vehicles” showed that you need 1.4 kg of lithium carbonate per kilowatt hour of battery. If you took all the lithium carbonate that we produce today and put it into small plug-in hybrid battery, an 8 kWh battery (HEV20), you could produce about six million cars –one-third of US sales each year, and 10% of annual global sales.

But, Tahil notes, all current lithium production is currently allocated to other applications.

“So you’ve got to find new production. There’s about 75,000 (metric) tons of lithium carbonate being produced in the world today, and there new deposits coming on stream which will raise production to 150,000 tons. But the demand from computers, mobile phones, and other consumer electronics is growing at 20% a year.

Based on USGS and other sources, the total reserves of lithium carbonate are 68 million metric tons from which 11 million metric tons of lithium metal can be extracted. If the recovery rate could be increased to 50%, then you could get 29 million metric tons.

So you’d need at least 200,000 tons of lithium carbonate to give 17 million new cars and trucks sold each year in America an 8 kWh battery comparable to what is in the current batch of Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid conversions.

An all-electric car like the Tesla S has nearly 10 times more lithium in its 85 kWh battery.

“At some point, if present trends continue, demand [for lithium] will outstrip the supply. And again, at some point, the market for lithium-ion could get so big that it actually affects the supply chain,” said Donald R. Sadoway, a professor of the Materials Chemistry Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT.

A compact EV battery (Nissan Leaf) uses about 4kg (9 lb) of lithium.

About 70 percent of the world’s lithium comes from brine (salt lakes); the remainder is derived from hard rock. In 2009, total demand for lithium reached almost 92,000 metric tons, of which batteries consume 26 percent.

Most of the known supply of lithium is in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Australia and China. The supply is ample and concerns of global shortages are speculative, at least for the moment. It takes 750 tons of brine, the base of lithium, and 24 months of preparation to get one ton of lithium in Latin America. Lithium can also be recycled an unlimited number of times, and 20 tons of spent Li-ion batteries yield one ton of lithium. This will help the supply, but recycling can be more expensive than harvesting new supply through mining.

There are no other materials that could replace lithium, nor are battery systems in development that offer the same or better performance as lithium-ion at a comparable price. Rather than worrying about a lack of lithium, graphite, the anode material, could also be in short supply. A large EV battery uses about 25kg (55lb) of anode material. The process to make anode-grade graphite with 99.99 percent purity is expensive and produces much waste.

There is also a concern about pending shortages of rare earth materials for permanent magnets. Electric motors with permanent magnets are among the most energy efficient, and these are finding their way into EV powertrains. China controls about 95 percent of the global market for rare earth metals and expects to use most of these resources for its own production

“Of that 68 million, to give you an idea of how much you might actually expect to get out, which is then what you call your reserves, in this salt lake in the Atacama Desert, which is, if you like, the Ghawar field of the lithium world, they are getting a recovery factor of 42%. All the other salt lakes in the world have a lower concentration than the Atacama.”

“If you’re looking at global car production of 60 million plug-in hybrids and you give them a reasonable battery, you can be easily looking at a million tons of lithium carbonate being needed,” he said, adding that this doesn’t include the growing demand in China for motor vehicles.

“That’s three percent (a year) of what is realistically recoverable.”

On the charge that he’s being over pessimistic, Tahil responded that he’s being conservative, “yes, perhaps, certainly realistic.” He asked if GM or other carmakers will be wanting to commit to a material with that kind of depletion rate. Tahil’s paper doesn’t take into account any future recycling and reprocessing technologies that could someday recover lithium for reuse.

Turning to the vast but as yet untapped Salar de Uyuni and Salar de Coipasa salt pans of Southwestern Bolivia, Tahil explained that because of recent changes in Bolivian government policy, it may be difficult for outsiders to develop this resource, which holds as much as 50 percent of the world’s known lithium carbonate reserves.

“It’s concentration is very low compared to the Atacama,” he said. “It’s about a fifth and its got a much worse magnesium-to-lithium ratio. So, it’s going to be a lot more work, a lot more costly to get the lithium out.”

Besides strained political relations with the United States, in part because of America’s past support for right-wing huentas, Bolivia has nationalized its oil and gas industry and is likely to impose stiff royalty demands on any non-Bolivian entity wishing to develop the Salar de Uyuni.

In addition to a much stricter financial regime, Tahil also believes that Chile, Bolivia and Argentina will also require tougher environmental oversight, pointing out that the salt pans aren’t barren wastes, but fragile and interesting ecosystems, though it could be argued that hasn’t prevented the wholesale destruction of the Amazon rain forest on the eastern side of the Andes in Brazil in the name of profits.

Still, Tahil envisions that someday the rare and beautiful pink flamingos that inhabit the Salars of Bolivia could become environmental symbols employed to prevent the haphazard and careless development of the region’s salt pans. He also noted that some 50,000 tourists annual visit the region bringing with them important revenue.

On the opposite side of the globe in faraway Tibet, the Chinese have opened a 35,000 ton lithium processing facility that will, in time, make them the largest lithium producer on the planet, passing Chile’s SQM, at least for the moment.

“This has happened without much of murmur anywhere else in the world.”

Tahil pointed out that the company running the lithium carbonate facility is also China’s largest manufacturer of lithium cobalt cathodes for batteries. This will make the Chinese independent of lithium imports. He sees those lithium batteries ultimately showing up in Chinese-made electric cars, which may end up staying in the country to meet their own internal demand.

Finding the Fly in the Ointment
Mister Tahil said that he wasn’t entirely surprised to “find the fly in the ointment” as he began pulling the numbers together “given all the other roadblocks the electric car has had placed in its path during the 20th century.”

“I could see in just 5 years time that the industry could grind to a halt; and the car manufacturers might say, ‘well we tried to build plug-in hybrids, but there isn’t enough lithium, so production will have to be greatly scaled back. So, we’ll have to wait for lithium production to build up, and it’ll be ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?” all over again.”

He is also concerned that the “lithium ion [political] juggernaut” will simply get out of control, building lots of public momentum only to crash into the reality of limited availability a few years out.

“What we need is integrated strategic planning to plan a global strategy for transition to oil independence,” he stated, “where we look at what are all the technologies that are available to provide motive transport as oil production falls.

“So my reaction was those who are dedicating their lives to getting real EVs onto the market need to look long and hard and realistically at the facts and what their implications are, and not just ignore the other battery technologies that have complementary strengths, which could potentially allow us to progress and achieve what we want much more quickly and in parallel.”

He expressed his concern that lithium has become “the fashionable thing at the moment”, being adapted from the consumer electronics market to electric cars without a thorough analysis of its sustainability.

If Not Lithium, What Then?

Meridian International Research researched the various battery technologies for electric vehicles in 2005 and of all the chemistries it analyzed, sodium nickel chloride and zinc air stood out, Tahil said. The first option, sodium nickel chloride was developed in the 1980s and is known as the ZEBRA battery. He characterizes it as relatively cheap and proven technology with a potential cost in mass production of $150/kWh compared to $350/kWh for lithium ion.

“It has half to a third the nickel content of nickel metal hydride. It has high cycle life. It can be recycled for the stainless steel industry by simply melting it down… just through it into a smelter… use for making stainless steel.”

The ZEBRA-class battery also doesn’t require the same level of thermal-runaway protection that lithium does. “The sodium nickel chloride is fail-safe in overcharge and over-discharge. It tolerates cell failures, so that performance degrades, but there is no safety issue, which there still is with lithium ion.

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