Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Rush To Electric Cars Will Replace Oil Barons With Lithium Dictators

In the latest installment of the Butterfly Effect we look at how mining the key ingredient in electric cars could end up enriching potential enemies of America, and force another round of innovation to build an even newer kind of battery.

1. Revenge Of The Electric Car

One day in late 2005, after losing yet another bruising political battle to the bean counters inside General Motors, then-vice chairman “Maximum” Bob Lutz heard of a startup called Tesla Motors intending to bring an all-electric sports car to market. Enraged that a bunch of Silicon Valley gearheads could do what he couldn’t, Lutz, in his own words, "just lost it." He rallied his fellow car guys within GM to develop the prototype of what became the Chevrolet Volt--the “moon shot” justifying the company’s survival and the first in a new wave of electric vehicles just beginning to break on dealers’ showrooms. And while the Volt uses just a tiny bit of gas, it's still powered by a material that is in short supply and controlled by some of the most hard to deal with governments in the world. Its lithium battery might just create a new geopolitical calculus that is just as problematic as the gas-based one electric cars are supposed to extricate us from.

2. Peak Lithium?

A month before the Volt announcement, an energy analyst named William Tahil published a paper titled “The Trouble With Lithium.” There simply isn’t enough cheap lithium to go around, he argued, and 80% of the world’s accessible reserves are located in the so-called “Lithium Triangle” of the Chilean, Argentine, and Bolivian Andes (pictured above). “If the world was to exchange oil for Li-ion based battery propulsion,” Tahil wrote, “South America would become the new Middle East. Bolivia would become far more of a focus of world attention than Saudi Arabia ever was.” Even then, we would run out of lithium long before we’d finished electrifying our cars.

Tahil’s paper immediately came under fire for his overly pessimistic predictions. Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago--a hotbed of lithium battery innovation--estimate worldwide demand will eventually top out at 8 million metric tons, total. (The Volt’s massive battery array only requires about nine pounds.) That’s well within the U.S. Geological Survey’s conservative estimate of 12 million tons of recoverable reserves. As refining improves and new deposits are discovered, that figure will only go up. And unlike oil, lithium can be recycled; once you get it out of the ground, it’s yours.

3. From Petro-Dictators To Electro-Dictators?

Fortunately for GM and Toyota, Chile’s and Argentina’s lithium deposits are open for business. But the largest lies across the border in Bolivia, containing anywhere from 9 million (the official U.S. estimate) to a credulity-straining 100 million tons of lithium. Bolivia’s president Evo Morales (left) is no friend of the U.S., however; he pals around with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He once expelled the U.S. ambassador and likes to end speeches with the rallying cry, “Death to the Yankees!”

4. If It's Not Lithium, It's Something Else

There are two alternatives to entrusting the bulk of America’s lithium supply to Chile, Bolivia, or even Afghanistan--discover new sources closer to home, or innovate our way out. In Bottled Lightning, author Seth Fletcher pays a visit to Western Lithium’s stake in the Nevada foothills where it hopes to mine lithium from clay deposits. A spin-off from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory called Simbol Mining believes it can meet nearly a fifth of the world’s needs by mining California’s (chemical-rich) Salton Sea.

The other option is to treat Li-ion batteries as a bridge technology on the way to something lighter, cheaper, and better. “We need something with the energy density of gasoline,” says LeVine. “We need the new technology--sulfur-air, zinc-air, lithium-air.” Other teams are working on a battery made of molten melts and salts.

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