Lithium Production Can't Keep up with Demand for Batteries

The vast majority of world's supply of lithium carbonate, the mineral used to make lithium-based batteries for cellphones and laptop computers is found in just four countries: China, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, reports William Tahil, director of research for Meridian International Research in a newly released white paper entitled, The Trouble with Lithium.

In an exclusive telephone interview with EV World, Tahil contends that all of the world's current production of lithium salts, which are extracted from brine lakes high in the Andes and Tibet, is being utilized for small electronics and other industrial applications, and while production capacity will double in the next fews years, the industry simply can't produce enough lithium to build the hundreds of millions of large-format batteries needed to power the electric cars and plug-in hybrids of the future.

Recently both General Motors and Ford Motor Company unveiled electric concept cars at the North American International Auto Show that make use of lithium-chemistry batteries. As recently as the 2007 State of the Union address, George Bush has been promoting plug-in hybrids and through an executive order is requiring federal fleets to buy them in the future.

Tahil estimates as much of 15% of the world's known reserves of lithium carbonate and lithium chloride would be required to equip each of the world's 800 million cars and trucks with a relatively small, 8 kWh battery pack. GM's Volt concept car is powered by a 16 kWh lithium battery pack. In his view, this is unsustainable.

Instead, Tahil is proposing that two other well-understood battery chemistries be more actively investigated and developed: sodium nickel chloride and zinc-air, both of which offer comparable or greater energy density than lithium without the attendant safety or resource depletion issues. After iron, aluminum and copper, zinc is the most commonly used metal by modern society. A 2005 USGS estimate placed American zinc reserves a 30,000,000 metric tons and world reserves, excluding the US, at 220 million metric tons. Tahil estimates total world lithium metal reserves at just 6,200,000 metric tons.

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