7 July 2011

USGS Raises World Lithium Estimate

Posted by John Freeland

Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons).

As a college student around 1976 I took a general ecology class taught by Jim Strayer. There was much discussion of non-renewable resources and the inevitable prospect of running out of gas. We’d already experienced gas shortages in 1973-74. Mr. Strayer wanted us to think forward and prepare for significant changes in our consumer lifestyle. At some point, someone suggested electric cars could replace gas guzzlers.

The class discussion turned to battery technology. Could cars really run on batteries? We assumed the batteries would be lead-acid and very heavy. To put enough of these kinds of batteries in a car or truck would take a lot of lead and greatly increase vehicle weight. The additional weight would require more horsepower – and better brakes. And, was there enough lead in the world to make all those mammoth batteries? We concluded, probably not.

Thirty years of innovation and intensive growth in high-tech electronics created the need for better, light-weight, rechargeable batteries. The answer, so far, seems to be lithium ion batteries. Seeing an opportunity for automotive applications Tesla Motors found a way to stack what are essentially laptop computer batteries together to power their high-performance Roadster.

Problem solved? Can lithium electric vehicles batteries replace the internal combustion engines of the world? No, according to the 2006 paper The Trouble with Lithium, written by William Tahil at Meridian International Research. Tahil based his conclusion on USGS estimates, which have more than doubled since then due to updated information from Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.

The USGS defines “Resource” as “a concentration of naturally occurring solid, liquid, or gaseous material in or on the Earth’s crust in such form and amount that economic extraction of a commodity from the concentration is currently or potentially feasible“.

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and contains lithium chloride. The lithium comes from weathering of rhyolitic volcanic rocks found in the mountains surrounding the Salar.

A fascinating blog post and photo log of a UCLA field trip to the Salar de Uyuni is available here.

Renewable energy technology is moving so quickly that whatever data we site today, whether it’s batteries, lithium, rare earth metals, photovoltaic films, wind turbine performance, or geothermal systems, it’s likely to be obsolete in a short time.