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.