28 March 2010

The Race for Lithium for Electric Cars and Bicycles

Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia. Photo: Ezequiel Cabrera/Wikipedia

The coming boom in batteries to electric cars and Lazy Bikes (electric-assist bicycles) means a boom in batteries with which to run them. A new race for natural resources has begun.

Enter Lithium, the world's lightest metal. For 150 years it's been nickel and lead that have been used in batteries but the advent of lithium technology has allowed for a revolution. Longer battery life, lighter batteries in our laptaps and mobile phones and iPods. Lithium weighs 1/20th of what nickel and lead do.

Lithium is also used in anti-depressive medicine, ceramics and nuclear power. With all this talk of electric cars and bicycles, the demand for lithium is on the verge of exploding. Lithium is the new oil.

Enter Boliva. This developing country sits on at least half of the world's supply of lithium, most of it in underground salt layers beneath the world's largest salt flats in Salar de Uyuni, in south-west Boliva. Between 50% and 70% of all the lithium in the world, according to some studies. Most of the lithium in the world comes from Argentina, Chile, China and Australia at the moment. Bolivia is Lithium Central but the country's lithium production is still in the early stages of development.

Whoever figured out that it was Boliva that was sitting atop all that lithium must have pumped their fist in the air and hissed "Yes!" Thank goodness it's a developing country. There's money to be made and there's nothing more irritating than developed nations getting richer when it can be corporations.

In order for the electric car boom to happen - literally - supplies of lithium need to be secured and protected. Toyota recently entered into a collaboration with an Australian mining company and invested $100 million in order to ensure they have supplies from mines in another developing nation, Argentina. Others will soon follow suit. The whole Better Place project that hopes to place 100,000 electric cars in Denmark and Israel within 5 years will be a dead fish if there is no sufficient lithium supply.

There are sceptics who fear that lithium will be placed on a pedestal like oil was/is and become a leading strategic natural resource. The Lithium War sounds rather sci-fi, doesn't it? But wars and natural resources have a tendency to go hand in hand. Some warn that the world will run out of lithium within a few decades. There is still masses of research underway to develop more efficient batteries using old school nickel and lead. Then there are those who say that there is more than enough lithium to go around. Between 18-20 million tonnes in Bolivia alone. Enough for more than 5 billion electric cars (not a reassuring thought). Globally, there is about 35 million tonnes of lithium at the moment.

Others name lithium as a world-changing resource because there may be many more uses for it. Lithium can be harvested from sea-water, although in smaller amounts.

Some experts have warned that the demand for lithium will escalate dramatically and prices will rise fast and furious if Bolivia doesn't start producing enough lithium to satisfy the automobile industry. The whole electric car revolution could fall flat on it's face and that would render Bolivia's lithium reserves worthless and there goes the 'Next Middle East' and 'New Saudi Arabia' hopes.

There are many big question marks regarding exploiting the stores of lithium under the Bolivan Salar de Uyuni. Environmental impact is one, of course. Harvesting lithium is, apparently, not as nasty as oil. But when heavy industry moves into remote areas of the world to get busy, the result is rarely pretty.

At the moment, the Bolivian government is reluctant to allow foreign companies access to the lithium adventure. Which is understandable, really. They are quickly developing a small facility to suck up the lithium from the underground and it is expected to be fully-functional this summer. Next step is a mammoth facility, roads and infrastructure, electricity, et al. The country's goal is a yearly production of 30,000 tonnes within a couple of years, which is about 30% of the global market. The country aims to produce batteries for cars by 2014.

The Lithium Adventure has begun. How it ends depends. Unfortunately we know all to well the result when corporations and nations gear up for securing natural resources.

All I can say is thank goodness I have a bicycle with a "rye bread motor" (rugbrødsmotor) as we call it in Danish. Just feed me rye bread and I'll pedal.

Via: Greenpacks as well as the excellent article in Politiken by Søren Kitaj from 28.03.2010.


WestfieldWanderer said...

Interesting write-up. One aspect not touched upon, of course, is all the lithium batteries in the world are pretty well useless unless there's a reliable means of charging them. Which brings up the continued availability of reliable fuel for electricity generation.
Rugbrødsmotors it is, then.
As the strap-line for the Edinburgh Cycle Co-op goes: "The revolution will not be motorized!".

Jason Locklin said...

Of course, major differences are that lithium is not consumed in batteries like oil is in cars, and therefore can be recycled over and over again. It also doesn't provide any energy, like oil, but only allows the storage of it. Really apples and oranges.

Lastly, lazy bikes will never account for much of the demand. Cars use thousands of times as much battery as a bicycle, and there are thousands of times as many laptops as lazy bikes.

dr2chase said...

I assume we could charge them with windmills.

I had read, not sure of the source's credibility, that there might not be enough lithium to go around, even with Bolivia's supply. I think it depends upon the size, speed, and range of the e-cars that are contemplated.

Practical ethanol fuel cells are likely to appear, sooner or later, and that is another way to power an electric bike (or car). It's a superior fuel in many ways (easily produced, medium energy density, easily stored, not very poisonous). The catalysts are still a little too exotic, but either way, the bike could be rye-powered.

Brent said...

According to this guy, the world's oceans are full of lithium, if we could only figure out how to extract it:


John Romeo Alpha said...

Recycling lithium batteries is expensive and difficult. There's only one company (Toxco) in the world doing it on a commercial scale, and the metal they recover does not pay for the processing. NiMH is more easily recycled, and the metal recovered does pay for the process. Unfortunately the EV-95 batteries that might have taken us down a somewhat sustainable battery chemistry route were shutdown by the Cobasys lawsuit.

townmouse said...

Rye bread? Mine runs on chocolate...

dr2chase said...

Brent, the oceans are filled with everything. It's simply a matter of how hard we must work to extract it. If lithium gets expensive enough (and power remains cheap enough), we'll get it from seawater.

Our problem is that there's quite a lot of us, and we have not made much progress on figuring out how to live well, and live efficiently. Europe is doing a better job at this than we are here in the USA. Bikes, even e-bikes (because they are so much smaller than e-cars) are almost certainly part of the answer.

Kim said...

As WestfieldWanderer points out, there is a very big pachyderm in the room which everyone seem determined to ignore. Where are we going to get the generating capacity from? Are we going somehow going to repeal the first law of thermodynamics? The big problem with the car is that it is actually one of the least energy efficient ways of transport, especially when you look at the occupancy rates. Moving about one ton + of mental to get one (increasingly often over weight) person, is simply not a good use of resources. There are better ways of doing things.

Anonymous said...

This is nothing new in this story for anybody that has been following peak oil and every other 'peak resource' including water, uranium, et al for the past 5 years...

If you really want to get down to the guts of it, there are two main problems:
- too many people
- too many of them consuming too much (Westerners - yes, that's us)

When I say 'consuming too much' I mean everything:
- fancy food, new clothes every season, new cars, overseas holidays, heating & cooling, gadgets and so on.

While these pedelecs (tagged, I see by you as 'lazy bikes' in your blog - how unbiased, Mikael) do use some lithium, they use nothing like the amount that an electric car would use - I'm sure these cars would have one occupant too. If pedelecs get one person out of their cars and onto bicycles then they have made real difference.

That is my story - I've barely driven my car in 2 months and will soon sell it. I have a pedelec and where I live, with hot, humid summers it makes it a little easier to get around. It's not like it is a scooter... jeez.

Oh, and Mikael, you didn't say if you wanted to take me up on my offer of cycling around hilly south-east Queensland in the middle of a hot summer at latitude 27 on your cargo bike... but perhaps you shouldn't be flying so much if you care about the environment... ;-)

Paul Martin
Brisbane, Australia

Brent said...

I think that eBikes, all else equal, are more efficient users of energy than regular bicycles. If you need to travel, say, ten kilometers, it might take 1 euro worth of food but only a few euro cents of electricity. The human body isn't particularly good at converting food calories into energy, while electric motors have very high efficiencies.

Anonymous said...

The future is fuel cell and not battery powered. Honda,Ford, Mercedes and BMW already have cars using Hydrogen fuel cells. This technology is set up to work in the same way as petrol/diesel. The average joe will vote with his feet on this. Batteries will continue to be used in small portable devices like bikes and computers and Lithium wars will not be necessary.

Anonymous said...

Hydrogen? You have got to be kidding! There will be no hydrogen economy.

To produce hydrogen requires enormous amounts of energy - at the moment the easiest/cheapest way to produce the electricity to produce hydrogen is by burning coal and other fossil fuels (NG).

There are plenty of problems with storage, energy density (poor) and distribution, et al.

A 'fuel cell' vehicle is nothing more than an electric vehicle where the energy is stored in the hydrogen molecules rather than a traditional battery.

Oh... and you need some pretty rare metals to produce a fuel cell too!

I bet London to a brick that the future of hydrogen cars is not going to be rosy.

The future of travelling is going to be walking, cycling – with some e-bikes ;) – and public transit...

Paul Martin
Brisbane, Australia

carzone said...

Nice post .keep it up