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Martin Alipaz / epa / Corbis - TIME

For several years now, electric vehicle advocates have been pushing lithium ion batteries as the solution to the issues of global warming and fossil fuel use. Unfortunately, just as petroleum is a finite resource with the most abundant supplies being restricted to certain geographic areas, the same is true of lithium. A substantial proportion of the world's known supplies of lithium carbonate are located in the central Andean region of South America, with the largest deposits in Bolivia and, to a lesser degree, Chile. For an impoverished country like Bolivia, this has the potential to bring the same kind of bounty that Saudi Arabia got in the second half of the last century.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the world that's hoping to use all that lithium, having a dominant player means that the cost of lithium batteries is unlikely to drop significantly any time soon even if production is ramped up. Bolivia's leftist president Evo Morales wants a state-dominated lithium industry in order to ensure that the profits benefit the people of his country. As a result, some automakers are attempting to go directly to the Bolivian government to ensure adequate supplies. That would explain why most of the major automakers are tying up with battery makers in order to keep the technology in house rather than rely on suppliers. Regardless of who controls the supply of lithium, there remain concerns that demand could outstrip supply within a decade. if that happens, we'll have to continue the search for other alternatives anyway.

[Source: TIME]


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  • 30 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'm grateful because I've learned a lot from this discussion. It seems to me the critical shortages are in imagination and courage to change in the face of grief world society must go through for losing our mindless/heartless life style. The days of North American long range trips in family cars are numbered. High society will learn to have their private compartments installed in mass transit scenarios. We see possibilities when we look at Europe and Japan.
      It's difficult to imagine living in a new paradigm where the throw away society we are used to goes obsolete.

      • 6 Years Ago
      Another reason why Jeremy Clarkson is right about battery powered cars.
      The hurdle of limit range and cost is just too big to leap. The ability to refuel hydrogen cars means that ultimately they will provide the usefulness that people demand, and battery cars will never equal.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Ah, but the cost of H2 fuel cells and H2 storage is about 20x more than the cost of an equivalent LiIon battery pack, and H2 fuel cells require materials that are far more expensive and rare than Lithium, such as Platinum.

        It doesn't help that H2 fuel costs considerably more than "electric fuel", and always will.

        So arguing that LiIon is "too expensive" is NOT an argument in favor of H2 fuels.
        • 6 Years Ago
        You don't need a fuel cell for hydrogen, just burn it in a conventional internal combustion engine, as demonstrated by BMW with their hyrdogen 7 series. OK, you need a bigger displacement to get a decent amount of power, but that doesn't really matter. There's plenty of room under the hood for a 5 litre V12 burning H2.

        I don't think battery swapping will ever take off. The battery is an expensive part that is damaged if abused. What stops people thrashing their battery then just swapping for another? One day you pick up a duff battery and can only travel half the distance. It would be like everyone driving a rental car, they all end up abused.

        Good point about 1,000 mile batteries though. When the range reaches that level then battery cars are practical. There is a limit to how far you can drive in one day, so recharging over night is not a problem. Maybe even 500 miles is just enough.

        Perhaps Jeremy is just a tall oaf from Chipping Norton.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Phil, one problem with the BMW Hydrogen 7 is that, even with an expensive 30 gallon liquid H2 dewar tank filling the trunk, it still gets a mere 120 miles per tank. Compressed H2 is even worse - a Prius modified to run on compressed H2 gets a mere 80 miles per tank of H2, even with hybrid efficiency, and that conversion costs $80K due to expensive carbon fiber high pressure tanks. But the real coup-de-grace for H2 ICE is that the low efficiency of IC engines and the high cost of H2 fuel make it more expensive to drive than any petroleum fuels, even in high fuel tax Europe.
        • 6 Years Ago
        The only remaining advantage for H2 FC cars over battery electrics, fast recharge, disappears with the advent of swappable batteries, or "10 minute" chargers, or "powered highways" - and those have already been demonstrated.

        Of course, if battery improvements recently demonstrated in the lab prove to be cost effective, we could see "thousand mile per charge" battery cars that would make H2 fuel cell cars totally obsolete.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Since we are not allowed to build nuclear reactors and less the 10% of our power comes from falling water, where do people think the power to recharge millions of electric cars is going to come from? Burining fossil fuels! In a plant as much as 50 miles away from the end user. With the losses in generation, transmision and conversion at the charging station, it is more envronmentally freindly to put the fuel in the auto. Also we won't need an enormous landfil to dump all those toxic dead batteries generated each year.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I just have one question. Since Bolivia's lithium is obtained from salt deposits, could it be possible to use salt or existing desalination facilities to obtain lithium?
        • 6 Years Ago
        Yes. Bolivia is the leading source simply because its salt flats have the highest concentration of lithium, but there are lots of potential sources of lithium. Any nation with access to the sea could, if they needed to, get all the lithium they wanted from the ocean.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Sam,

      Long-time reader of your articles. Keep it up. Hey, didn't the Lithium Market and Supply 2009 conference just wrap up in Chile yesterday? Seeing as this was the "meeting of the minds" and involved every major lithium production company and industry researchers, don't you think there was a wealth of information flowing out of this symposium? Did you send anybody down there to report on this? I expect this conference to be just as important as the major auto, alt. vehicle, and EVS shows.
      • 6 Years Ago
      The real question is not will this resource will be tapped but at what cost?

      Last time I checked, Bolvians had to resort to violent protests to just keep their own water supply from being taken over by the WTO...

      http://www.flowthefilm.com/trailer

      http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0896087034/ref=cm_cr_asin_lnk

      Sounds like in 2009, being impoverished means having to fight to keep everything that is rightly yours.

      Stay tuned and diligent to protect the people of Bolivia and this important resource.

      • 6 Years Ago
      DadBoese is right, lithium can be recycled, it doesn't get "burned up" and require you to keep going back for more the way petroleum does.

      Another point has to be made. . . Bolivia is far from being the only source of lithium. Lithium is a common element in the earth's crust, that can be extracted from many sites around the world, and even from sea water if necessary. What Bolivia has is the richest and easiest-to-access large deposit of lithium, which has been adequate to supply much of the world's demand up to now.

      If demand grows a lot and lithium prices climb, at some point it will become economically viable to open up other sources. It's hard to imagine the world running out of lithium, though there could be temporary shortages if demand grows faster than worldwide production can keep pace.

        • 6 Years Ago
        On the other hand lithium ion batteries are already prohibitively expensive and climbing lithium prices will only make that problem worse. We will really have to move beyond lithium to make mass market EVs commercially viable
        • 6 Years Ago
        Currently, the major cost for LiIon batteries is in the manufacturing process, not the raw materials. The price of LiIon batteries has been dropping due to improvements in manufacture, not from any reduction in lithium costs.

        So it is possible that Lithium battery prices could go down even with some increases in the price of lithium. The relative abundance of lithium limits how much the price could increase.

        Of course, there are alternatives to lithium for batteries, it is just hard to beat the low molecular weight and high electronegativity of lithium.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Bolivia?

      Great, now all we have to do is have the CIA back a military junta that will knock off the current leader, and install a dictator more responsive to our country's - oops, I mean COMPANY'S needs, and we'll be in like Flynn.

      We've done this, what, 3 or 4 times in South America in the past, it'll be old hat by now.

      Hey, we might even be able to gin up a quick military "intervention" to satisfy that end of the economy too!
        • 6 Years Ago
        It was blowback from this type of activity that created Islamic terrorism and world hatrid for the US but I'm sure that this is EXACTLY what the CIA is considering for our "national security".

        I'm sure that the NeoCons and Democratic-Socialists would speak out against this type of foreign intervention just before they vote FOR it.
      • 6 Years Ago
      The demand for lithium may be overestimated. Lithium ion batteries (the most powerful type) have an inherent problem. In these batteries lithium ions move between electrodes whereas in other batteries only electrons move. Lithium ions are thousands of tmes larger than electrons and they plate out on the electrodes causing them to grow larger. Since no battery is ever completely reversible upon recharging, the elctrodes continue to grow with each cycle. Eventually the electrode gets so large that it shorts causing cell failure. The number of cycles with deep discharge is not very large so the life of the batteries is short. These batteries are also very expensive.

      The battery pack for a Tesla roadster costs about $50,000 and it will probably last only about 50,000 miles which equals $1/mile battery cost. Compared to a Corvette with gasoline at $1.80/gal that is about 10 times the cost to propel the car.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Uh, no. The batteries used in the Roadster will still have 80% capacity after approx. 120,000 miles, which means the range will be reduced from 244 to only 195 miles per charge. That should take a few years, and it will be up to the owner whether to squeeze a few thousand more miles out of the old pack, or replace with newer and better batteries. Those batteries were just the best that were available when Tesla started that project, there is plenty of room for improvement.

        Altairnano batteries showed no noticable deterioration after over 10,000 charging cycles, an EV using those would still be going strong after 2 million miles. Methinks the car would give out first.

        BTW, it isn't just "electrons only" that move in other batteries. ALL batteries have ions that move, ions are what makes the electrolyte an electrolyte
      • 6 Years Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      Sam says lithium batteries are too expensive, therefore we have to "move beyond lithium". I disagree, and here's why. . .

      Lithium batteries today are indeed too expensive, but the cost of lithium isn't the reason. It's the more expensive anode and cathode components (like cobalt) that are uncommon and expensive. There's also a need for more capital investment, and more and bigger plants to mass-produce large-format batteries and get the costs down.

      Some of the new lithium battery chemistries don't use cobalt, they have electrode materials made from more common materials. The other hurdles I mentioned are exactly the ones that our capitalist free-market system has historically done a great job on. (As shown by the absurdly low cost of internal combustion engines.) It's just a matter of time.

      Maybe something better than li-ion will come along. (Wherefore art thou EEStor?) I'm all for that, but it's not *necessary* in order for electric cars to become viable mass-market products.

      • 6 Years Ago
      Real estate including improvements is private and should be owned by individuals and corporations. Gov’t should NOT own real estate and it should NOT be taxed but the natural resources mined from that real estate should be shared by all equally.

      Natural resources belong to everyone in the nation and profits from their sale or use should be shared equally via being used to pay for public services such as police, fire, roads, energy etc.

      HOWEVER each person's labor is their own and should NOT be taxed or redistributed to those who refuse to work. Taking part of a person’s labor is slavery.

      Corporations are formed as a creature of gov't to protect their owners from personal liability therefore corporate profits should be taxed to help pay for gov't infrastructure.

      Of course, corporations, oil companies, mining companies and the Statist (Socialists/NeoCon/Democratic/Fascists/communists/Progressive) politicians they own will disagree.

      Corporations wish to steal the natural resources from the populace while placing their public responsibility onto to the workers.

      Statists know that the tax on income is an excellent way for top-down gov’t to control the population through intimidation while maintaining a “master-slave” Statist relationship.

      If the NATURAL resources were shared and corporations paid their fair share in return for owner-officer corporate veil protection, there would be no need for personal income tax and there would be no need for fiat currency.

      There would be PLENTY of money for infrastructure and the population would be free from the yoke of a runaway central gov’t.
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