"We're entering an exciting new phase for the automotive industry, where we increase the electrification of vehicles, reducing consumption of gasoline through advanced batteries," says David Vieau, president of lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems in Massachusetts.
A Chilean lithium mine: Most of the world's supply is in South America. (Flickr photo/ar.obrien)
Yes, the search is on for the perfect battery ap, and for now that means lithium-ion technology. Everyone wants to scale up the lab work to full-scale factory production, and there are signs that even in this straitened economy some money will be available from the strongly sympathetic Obama administration. A123, for instance, has applied for $1.8 billion from the Department of Energy to build a seven-million-square-foot factory in Detroit to supply multiple automakers. With something like 14,000 employees, it wants to be able to supply batteries for five million hybrids or a half million plug-in EVs annually by 2013.
Those potential jobs have definitely caught the interests of area politicians. "The prospect for a new advanced battery production facility in Michigan is exactly the kind of hope that our state needs as we work through a deep economic downturn," says Senator Carl Levin (D-MI).
Meanwhile, the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture, an alliance of a dozen companies, is looking for $2 billion in funding for a similar factory.
An interesting question is whether we'll have enough lithium to build the millions of battery packs we'll need for this brave new electric future. Charles Gassenheimer, CEO of Ener1, a battery maker supplying packs to the Norwegian carmaker Think Global, is confident there's no immediate danger of running out of lithium.
"We don't see it," Gassenheimer said. "I've seen some negative reports saying the world is in danger of running out, but I don't think that's a productive notion. The amount of lithium in a lithium-ion battery is very low when compared to other substances -- it's three to four percent of our costs for materials. When I look at all the things to worry about for battery cars, lithium supply does not make the list. There's not likely to be a problem until 2020 at the earliest."
Speaking of negative reports, Meridian International Research does say in a 2006 report entitled "The Trouble With Lithium" that the world's supply is limited, and concentrated in China, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Total world reserves, according to William Tahil, director of research, is just 6.2 million metric tons. "Analysis shows that a world dependent on lithium for its vehicles could soon face even tighter resource constraints than we face today with oil," the report says.
A short primer:
Lithium is widely distributed and is the 33rd most abundant element, but like hydrogen (another source of renewable energy) it does not occur naturally in elemental form. It has to obtained and processed.
In traditional rock-like form, it is obtained from open-pit mines in North Carolina, Zimbabwe, Manitoba, Canada and Western Australia. But this form is gradually being replaced with a brine-based product obtained from other sources, including Nevada, Chile and Bolivia.
According to the New York Times, Bolivia alone has as much as half the world's lithium reserves in remote salt deserts, and is contemplating nationalizing the industry. Bolivia could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" through its Salar de Uyuni deposit, the paper said. Extracting is not particularly eco-friendly -- the most cost-effective method is evaporating brine in special ponds lined with toxic PVC plastic. Lithium is corrosive, and breathing its dust can irritate nose and throats; in big doses, it can cause fluid buildup in the lungs. It also presents a fire hazard, one big headache for battery developers.
Lithium, first discovered in Sweden in 1813, is the lightest possible metal, which is why it's great for lightweight battery packs. But since lithium is difficult to purify and separate from its sister metals, it wasn't until 1923 that modern refining methods were identified by a German company.
Obviously, the world's lithium mining will shift and grow as its value and importance increases. Gassenheimer points out that lithium is very abundant, and new sources in both the brine and rock-like forms will be found to meet demand. "The concept of a shortage has been overplayed," he said.
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