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Lithium  (Source: Kent Chemistry)
Prospectors are discovering new lithium deposits as the industry races towards electric vehicles

Demand for lithium is currently at an all time high, as today lithium batteries power the majority of mobile electronics.  Lithium is also widely used in various pharmaceuticals and fusion experiments.  Soon lithium demand will leap even higher, though, with electric vehicles using large amounts of lithium in their battery packs.

With lithium, there are two main concerns -- cost and availability.  Turning first to the second concern, availability, in 2007 it was estimated (PDF) that there were 35 million tons of extractable lithium worldwide.  That's impressive considering it's three times the known deposits in 1976.  Recently discovered deposits in Australia, Serbia, Argentina and the United States helped bump up the number.

It's likely that the number of known deposits has risen since 2007.  In Mexico a small company claims to have found a new deposit that holds at least 800,000 extractable tons.  Still,production is lagging behind discoveries, partly because of big investors' desire to stick with proven sources, such as those in Argentina and Chile.

Toyota Motor Company's sister company in January entered a contract with Australia's Orocobre Ltd to carry out a $80-110M USD project in Argentina's Olaroz lithium rich salt lake.  Keith Evans, one of the world's leading lithium experts, comments, "It seems generally accepted that reserves and resources will be adequate, but it's easy for junior exploration companies to raise money on the strength of the lithium buzz. Exploration activity has exploded. They all hope to find sources that can be competitive, (but) Chile and Argentina have sufficient reserves for billions of years."  

It takes about a third of a pound of lithium to deliver a kWh in a battery pack.  Current packs for plug-in electric vehicles with gasoline generators like the 2011 Chevy Volt have about 16 kWh, while pure-electrics like the 2011 Nissan Leaf EV have battery packs of 24 kWh or more.  That means that just one million tons of lithium could produce 395 million Volts or 250 million Leafs.  And with 35 million tons, the primary problem now appears not to be getting enough lithium, but rather getting it fast enough.

In 2009 Soquimich (SQM) and U.S.-based Rockwood extracted 20,000 tons of lithium from Chile's Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in the nation.  The lake is considered perhaps the best lithium deposit in the world.  Despite that, the production yield is still quite low.  

In Argentina Canada's Lithium One and FMC Corp (the world's largest producer) are vying for control of resources on Argentina's big lake Salar del Hombre Muerto.  In total, the resources currently known by SQM, FMC and Rockwood encompass 8 million tons of lithium, though production remains a scant fraction of that.

Ultimately, the disparity between resources and production should yield for some expansion.   Unfortunately, though, it's not necessarily that simple.  While simple supply and demand would mandate that if there's demand for a resource it will be harvested, lithium harvest is no simple matter.  It takes an expenditure of millions of dollars of high tech refining equipment, as well as a suitable transportation network.  Until more major parties step up to the plate with such big capital investments, prices for electric vehicles, medication, and portable electronics will likely remain relatively high.

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