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Chevy Volt

Nissan LEAF

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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1/3 pound
By titanmiller on 2/12/2010 8:27:27 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not chemist, but I find it hard to believe that a mere 1/3 lb of lithium can make a battery with 1kwh of capacity. This would mean that the Volt's entire battery only contains 5 1/3 lb of lithium (4.4 liters volume).

I very well could be wrong, maybe the lithium itself only composes a small percentage of the battery.

Does anyone have insight into this? I am interested to hear an answer.




RE: 1/3 pound
By Howard on 2/13/2010 3:07:49 AM , Rating: 3
Try Wikipedia. It's free.


RE: 1/3 pound
By lachbus on 2/16/2010 4:36:45 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, in fact that is an obvious mistake in this article. The author should have checked his numbers - if you look in Wikipedia for example for 'Lithium-ion battery', you'll find the specific energy density of '150 to 220 W·h/kg (540 to 720 kJ/kg)'.
So, you need ideally 11-13 pounds per KWh, not 0.3. Just off by a factor of 35...
I'm a little surprised noone else picked up on this.
I guess you'll need about 200 pounds of lithium per car using these numbers.

Stephan


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