Thinking Tech

Lithium, the new oil

Lithium, the new oil

Posting in Energy

Lithium will likely not contribute to U.S. energy independence given most of the world's supply is locked away in South America. It's plausible if not likely we will find ourselves trading in Middle East despots for new ones deep in South America.

Lithium flats. credit: hybridcars.com

True or false? Battery-powered cars are the answer to our energy and environmental woes. We can produce as many as we want and power them with renewable sources of energy. It's the perfect scenario for energy independence and a much greener planet.

Give that many battery-powered vehicles will use lithium-ion batteries (your cordless drill and computer already do), the answer is false. Oh, there's plenty of ions alright. It's the lithium we have to worry about. By some estimates, we would exhaust the world's supply of lithium building six million small cars a year (10 per cent of the world's total) with lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium (Li) is a mineral and is the lightest metal. Most of it is found in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia which has more than half the world's lithium deposits, according to US Geological Survey. It is the 31st most abundant element on earth.

lithium will likely not contribute to U.S. energy independence given most of the world's supply is locked away in South America. It's plausible if not likely we will find ourselves trading in Middle East despots for new ones deep in South America.

An excellent and oft-cited study by William Tahil, Research Director of Meridian International Research,  projects we would come 5x short on lithium if the all the world's 60 million vehicles made each year used lithium ion batteries. And that would appear to exclude the nine per cent of the world's supply used for mood stabilizing drugs.

"The total amount of lithium metal required to make 60M PHEV20s (hybrid electric vehicles with a 20 mile range) with a small 5kWh LiIon battery would therefore be 90,000 tonnes – nearly 5 times current global Lithium production," he wrote.

Other says we have all the lithium we need and it can be recycled and resold. I'm no expert, but I highly  doubt that we have all we want. I subscribe to the 'there's only so much stuff on the planet' theory.

Powering anything a vehicle that carries five adults along at 70 MPH for hours on end requires significant conversion of the earth's resources. Thermodynamics, the conversion of energy into work and heat come into play here and that's about as deep into that as I want to get.

My point is no amount of energy is free as green advertising suggests. Something is gained at another thing's expense. That's why I get annoyed at car company "no compromise" message in their advertising about hybrid electric vehicles. Both Ford and GM have pushed hard on the idea of no compromise hybrids in size, comfort and versatility.

There's nothing green about any automobile.

Toyota, on the hand, has produced the Prius which is smaller, lighter and geekier looking than most of its other models, which says compromise. That's exactly what greener should be about.

By the way, Prius, the most popular hybrid electric vehicle to date, uses a nickel metal hydride battery to spin its wheels. Now let's talk about the world's supply of nickel and how it is mined and processed.

Therein lies my point: whenever we build cars regardless of what we build, there will always be a cost to the planet with a healthy dose of global politics tagging along for the ride.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure