«Executive Summary Lithium Ion batteries are rapidly becoming the technology of choice for the next generation of Electric Vehicles - Hybrid, Plug In ...»
The Trouble with Lithium
Implications of Future PHEV Production for Lithium Demand
Meridian International Research
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Lithium Ion batteries are rapidly becoming the technology of choice for the next generation of Electric
Vehicles - Hybrid, Plug In Hybrid and Battery EVs. The automotive industry is committed increasingly to
Electrified Vehicles to provide Sustainable Mobility in the next decade. LiIon is the preferred battery technology to power these vehicles.
To achieve required cuts in oil consumption, a significant percentage of the world automobile fleet of 1 billion vehicles will be electrified in the coming decade. Ultimately all production, currently 60 Million vehicles per year, will be replaced with highly electrified vehicles – PHEVs and BEVs.
Analysis of Lithium's geological resource base shows that there is insufficient economically recoverable Lithium available in the Earth's crust to sustain Electric Vehicle manufacture in the volumes required, based solely on LiIon batteries. Depletion rates would exceed current oil depletion rates and switch dependency from one diminishing resource to another. Concentration of supply would create new geopolitical tensions, not reduce them.
The alternative battery technologies of ZnAir and NaNiCl are not resource constrained and offer potentially higher performance than LiIon. Research and industrialisation of Electrified Vehicles must also prioritise these alternative battery technologies.
The Rise of Lithium The world is embracing the Lithium Ion battery as its answer to mobile electrical energy storage needs. All other technologies are being more or less swept aside by the attraction of the potentially high energy density of Lithium based batteries.
The Lithium Ion battery has brought great improvements for portable electronic devices. Longer run time is still desired for laptop computers, but the Lithium battery now provides acceptable run times for most hand- held devices. The high cost of LiIon batteries is still a drawback and accounts for the continuing presence of NiMH batteries in the market.
As the reality of Peak Oil sinks in further, the apparent high performance of the LiIon battery is being carried over into the future of transportation mobility – the Electric Vehicle in all its variants: EV, PHEV and HEV0.
But is this enthusiasm justified? And could we not be swapping dependence on one depleting natural resource – oil – for another?
Analysis shows that a world dependent on Lithium for its vehicles could soon face even tighter resource constraints than we face today with oil.
1 © Meridian International Research, 2007 Lithium Production and Resources Global Production of Lithium containing minerals today is about 20,000 tonnes of contained Lithium metal.
The two main mineral sources are:
Brine Lakes and Salt Pans which produce the soluble salt Lithium Chloride.
● A hard mineral called Spodumene, which is a silicate or glass of Lithium and Aluminium.
● The main producers of Lithium minerals are Chile, the USA, Argentina, China, Australia and Russia.
The following table shows the amount of Lithium metal equivalent contained in the Lithium mineral production from the main producing countries.
The USA does not disclose how much Lithium it produces, but consumption was estimated to be 3,000 tonnes in 2005, up 50% from 2004. US Lithium Carbonate production in 2002 was in the order of 9,000 tonnes.
USGS data for Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Chile and China has been amended by MIR in light of other data. This is discussed below.
The following graph shows this contained Lithium production by country.
9.83% 13.27% While South America currently dominates Lithium Production, with Chile and Argentina producing 10,000 out of the world total of about 20,000 tonnes, it dominates the Lithium Reserve Base even more so.
3 © Meridian International Research, 2007 Reserves vs Reserve Base It is important to understand the distinction between “Reserves” and “Reserve Base”. The USGS estimate that Global Lithium Reserves today are in the order of 4.2M tonnes, to which we have added an estimated
1.5MT for Argentina and 2.7MT for Bolivia, but subtracted 1.5MT from their Chile estimate, to give a total of
6.8 MT. “Reserves” are defined by the USGS as follows:
“Reserves. That part of the reserve base which could be economically extracted or produced at the time of determination. The term reserves need not signify that extraction facilities are in place and operative.
Reserves include only recoverable materials”.
“Reserves” are therefore what one can realistically expect to produce, using existing economically viable techniques.
The total global “Reserve Base” of Lithium is estimated by the USGS at about 11M tonnes, to which we have
added 2.0MT for Argentina and another 1.6MT in China. Reserve Base is defined as follows:
“Reserve Base. That part of an identified resource that meets specified minimum physical and chemical criteria related to current mining and production practices, including those for grade, quality, thickness, and depth. The reserve base is the in place demonstrated (measured plus indicated) resource from which reserves are estimated. It may encompass those parts of the resources that have a reasonable potential for becoming economically available within planning horizons beyond those that assume proven technology and current economics. The reserve base includes those resources that are currently economic (reserves), marginally economic (marginal reserves), and some of those that are currently sub-economic (sub-economic resources).” “Reserve Base” is therefore the geological resource, not what is economically recoverable. At some point these resources might become available if prices rise sufficiently, but of course the market wants the price of LiIon batteries to come down, not increase. As energy prices rise in the future, the cost of extraction and processing will not necessarily fall.
We will discuss other often cited potential Lithium sources such as Seawater later in this paper.
If the world was to exchange oil for LiIon based battery propulsion, South America would become the new Middle East. Bolivia would become far more of a focus of world attention than Saudi Arabia ever was. The USA would again become dependent on external sources of supply of a critical strategic mineral while China would have a large degree of self sufficiency.
However, in addition to these geo-political factors, in the rush to extrapolate the LiIon battery from portable
electronics to EVs, a number of other factors are being overlooked:
1. Only Lithium from the Brine Lakes and Salt Pans will ever be usable to manufacture batteries:
the Spodumene deposits can play no part in this.
2. An HEV or PHEV battery is 100 times as big as the largest LiIon laptop computer battery.
Lithium Production and Real Availability In this section, we will present an overview of how Lithium is currently produced and estimate how much of the Global Reserve Base of 15MT, plus the unknown deposits in Russia, could realistically be available for LiIon battery production in future.
The first point is that not all Lithium mineral deposits are created equal. There are two major types of deposit: a hard silicate mineral called Spodumene; and Brine Lake or Salt Pan deposits that contain Lithium Chloride.
Only the second of these is economically and energetically viable for LiIon batteries.
4 © Meridian International Research, 2007 Lithium Chloride Production To manufacture a LiIon battery, Lithium is needed for the cathode material and the electrolyte. This is obtained from Lithium Carbonate (Li2CO3) which in turn is now produced from naturally occurring Lithium
Chloride. Lithium Chloride is currently produced in volume from only three salt lake deposits in the world in:
All of these lakes contain a mixture of salts in varying proportions – chlorides and sulphates of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, boron and lithium.
The process used to obtain Lithium Carbonate is known as the Lime Soda Evaporation process. In brief, the salty water is pumped out of the lake into a series of shallow ponds and left to evaporate for 12 to 18 months.
Different salts crystallise out at different times as the solution becomes more concentrated. At one point it is treated with lime to remove the magnesium. Finally, the initial volume of water is reduced to produce a relatively concentrated Lithium Chloride brine (6% Lithium at the Salar de Atacama). This solution is then treated with soda ash (sodium carbonate or washing soda) to precipitate out insoluble Lithium Carbonate.
1.8 times as much soda ash is required as Lithium Carbonate. With low initial Lithium concentrations, variants of this process are used with absorption membranes or sulphate precipitation. Sulphate precipitation requires higher final concentration of the Lithium brine.
Solar Evaporation Pond
In addition to the three lakes already in use, production is now starting to gear up in China at the Zhabuye and Taijinaier Salt Lakes. A second extraction facility has also just (January 2007) been opened in Argentina (Salar del Rincon). Production will reach the market in late 2008.
The Lithium salt deposits at Salar de Atacama in Northern Chile are the biggest producer in the world, with production of about 40,000 tonnes of Lithium Carbonate per year.
The Salar de Hombre Muerto in Argentina encountered production difficulties in the early 2000s but this seems to have been rectified. Production is now at about 12,000 tonnes of Li2CO3 and 6,000 tonnes of LiCl per year.
The deposits in Nevada are in decline and many older Lithium deposits in the USA are now uneconomic.
About 9,000 tonnes of Li2CO3 are produced in the USA per annum.
Global Lithium Carbonate production is currently 75,000 tonnes or 14,000 tonnes of Lithium metal equivalent. The other 6,000 tonnes of Lithium metal equivalent produced each year is contained in the mineral Spodumene which is used directly in the manufacture of heat resistant ceramics and glass.
With the capacity increases announced by the industry, Global Lithium Carbonate Production should double to 150,000 tonnes per year by 2010. The maximum production forecast is as follows.
Production is concentrated in the hands of only 3 companies outside China: SQM, FMC Lithium and Chemetall GmbH. Admiralty Resources of Australia are just entering the market in addition.
Lithium Chloride Production - Future Issues The last and biggest untapped reserve of Lithium salt in the world is in the Salar de Uyuni salt pans of Bolivia, the remains of an ancient inland sea. Bolivia is estimated by the USGS to contain Lithium resources of 5,400,000 tonnes or nearly 50% of the global Lithium metal reserve base and an even higher percentage of the Lithium salt reserves. Another estimate has put the Bolivian resource as high as 9MT.
Bolivia has made a number of attempts in the past to exploit these Lithium resources. These have all foundered for political reasons. The current political situation in the country is acting as a strong disincentive for western mining companies to operate there. A social revolution is under way in Bolivia and many foreign mineral extraction companies are seeing their assets nationalised, notably in the Oil and Gas industry. The historical exploitation of mineral resources by foreign firms with what is considered to be insufficient benefit to Bolivian society in return is a major political issue in the country. In both Chile and Bolivia, the Lithium resources are considered to be a National Asset. In the current climate, the Bolivian government may not permit the wholesale industrialisation of the Uyuni salt flats, a unique and ancient ecosystem, just to provide motive power to the developed world. They certainly will not do so without requiring a much greater financial return than previously.
It would take at least 5 years for the first Lithium Carbonate product to reach the market after an agreement was concluded to develop it. Contract negotiations would add to this timescale.
There is also growing antipathy between local communities in Argentina and international mining companies.
Friction with the FMC facility at Hombre Muerto has been reported.
In Chile, there is continuous friction between the local communities and the mining companies over water rights. Mining already consumes 65% of the water in the Salar de Atacama region. The Salar is an important tourist destination, receiving over 50,000 visitors year round according to the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The Salars or salt lakes of the Andean Altiplano are home to unique species of fauna, including the famous pink flamingoes.
6 © Meridian International Research, 2007 Ecological and environmental considerations will not be ignored in the future when considering development of these mineral resources. Chile recently passed a new environmental protection law1, which requires all future mining developments to be subjected to an environmental impact assessment beforehand. All of the existing mining projects in the country can also be reviewed under this law and would have to be brought into conformity if found wanting. Citizens have the right to bring a judicial environmental review action against any existing mineral extraction operation.
SQM's brine extraction facility employs 300 people. Therefore a large expansion in brine extraction will not bring a great direct benefit to the region in terms of employment.
Spodumene We will now examine the other main type of Lithium deposit found in concentrated form – Spodumene.