The Lithium Squeeze
Written by Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser
You will be familiar with lithium-ion batteries, the little knob-sized things that keep your wrist watch and other small electronic devices going for years. Slightly larger lithium batteries power cell phones, cameras, walkie-talkies, and other small portable devices. So, why should such batteries not be able to power your electric car as well?
Indeed, hybrid (electric/gasoline) and fully electric cars rely on lithium-type batteries at this time. To add to the electric (or should this read eclectic?) excitement, new battery technology breakthroughs are touted quite frequently.
Lithium is one of five naturally occurring alkali elements, with sodium and potassium the most common other ones. In contrast to sodium and potassium, lithium salts are not known to be vital components or nutrients for organisms. Also, though widespread, this element is relatively uncommon in the earth’s crust of rocks. There are few lithium ores and the high solubility of lithium salts in water means that they will precipitate or crystallize out last from any salt water lakes. But that’s exactly where much of our current lithium supply comes from, with Chile and China currently the major producers.
Salt Lake Brines
The brines found below the layers of salt (mostly sodium and potassium chloride) of ancient remnants of dried-up ocean and lakes contain much of the lithium mined today. One of the most important locations for that is the salt flat Salar de Uyuni high up in the Andes mountains of Bolivia. With an area of over 10,000 square kilometers (4,100 square miles) it’s both the largest salt flat and among the richest lithium deposits on earth. Even then, the concentration of lithium salts in that brine is only 0.3%.
The Salar de Uyuni salt flats have been “mined” for a long time. Until recently, it was mostly done by a few of the local inhabitants living in that harsh environment. They venture out on the salt flats and dig up chunks of lithium-rich salts from the bottom of the salt crust and sell it to the drivers of commuter buses coming by once a week for a little cash. Obviously, the world’s demand for lithium ore cannot rely on such mining to satisfy its deemed need for a much larger and steady supply of lithium ore.
That’s where it gets interesting. As of late, Dutch and Chinese enterprises have taken much interest in these areas and are actively promoting their know-how and commercial interests in the Bolivian resource. However, the local Bolivians making a meager income from their mining activities are not enthusiastic about such ideas. Similar concerns surfaced in Chile when the government invited companies to tenderoffers for lithium resources there.
Apart from any disagreements with local populations, even if fully resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, the world-wide demand for lithium (mainly for batteries) could not easily be satisfied by large scale extraction of the Salar de Uyuni brines. It might suffice for a while but if fully electric vehicles (EVs) were ever to become the non-plus-ultra common mode of transportation around the world, the requirement for lithium would far outstrip the accessible lithium supply in a hurry.
As it is, the Tesla Motors company is already constrained by the availability of lithium-type batteries and has recently entered into an agreement with the battery maker Panasonic Corp. for a supply of a couple of billion lithium-ion batteries for their cars. That’s just to power an envisaged few thousand cars. The company is also thinking about building the largest lithium-ion battery factory the world has ever seen. Imagine the lithium requirement if the whole world were going electric for the current 1,000 million cars worldwide.
My car mechanic (for the last 40 years) is afraid to touch EVs, simply for the reason that the EVs and hybrid-EVs use comparatively high voltage systems of a few hundred V. He does not cherish the idea of being potentially electrocuted when doing any repair work.
Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are very useful energy storage devices for small electronics. Many LIBs are rechargeable for up to a thousand cycles but they also tend to loose energy upon storage, increasingly so at higher temperatures. Some types are also prone to developing memory effects.
More critical though are the electric vehicle and battery specifications and their limited energy storage capacities. For example, at least some of the larger LIBs use flammable electrolytes and are pressurized. For additional information on EVs see also Fads Come and Go — is the Electric Car a Fad?
To be comparable to the average car in range, an EV needs approximately 200,000 Wh in electric power storage. In comparison, the batteries in digital cameras typically contain 1 to 3 Wh of energy. That amount of energy may be sufficient to take a good number of pictures, but would not drive your car out of the driveway. Nevertheless, the know-it-all company, commonly called United Nations tells us “it’s no problem.”
Other Lithium Uses
Of course, batteries are not the only use for lithium. There are many other uses like in ceramics, glasses, rocket propellants, lubricating materials and medicines. The latter include drugs to treat depression, bipolar disorder and other afflictions.
Hope you don’t need any such lithium product when EV manufacturers corner the lithium market and electric cars consume all the lithium available.