Peak lithium

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Topic: 'Peak Lithium' hysteria is unjustified.

Every now and then you'll see a scare article trying to claim that resource A or resource B is on the verge of running out. Often it's oil. In this case, it's lithium, and the context is that we'll never be able to convert the world to electric cars powered by li-ion batteries.

And it's completely and utterly wrong.


[edit] General

First off, reserves don't work that way. You can start by reading about the issue on peak oil, but the same thing applies to lithium. Reserves don't simply "run out"; there's many thousands of cubic miles of the stuff in Earth's crust and oceans (Earth's 1.65e23kg crust is 20-70ppm lithium for a total lithium mass of 3.3 to 11.6 quintillion kilograms). All that changes is how much is mineable at *today's prices* with *today's technology*. I.e., either higher prices or advancing technology put more lithium into play -- and not just a little more, but literally exponentially more. And on top of this, unlike oil, lithium is an easily displaceable resource -- most lithium is used in glass, ceramics, and greases, and can be substituted for in all of them.[1]

The scare articles ignore these basic facts. They also ignore other things inconvenient to them -- most notably, tailings. For example, listen to this quote[2]:

"This means there is less lithium per volume of water, so competitors have to process more water, explained Tahil, adding that there is also the issue of the lithium-to-magnesium ratio. The more magnesium, the harder it is to extract the lithium."

Yes, but that means that you get *more magnesium* out of the process, which also has market value. Likewise, other mining operations that are seeking various minerals can (and do) get lithium tailings. Currently, these are typically discarded due to the low price of lithium. As demand for a mineral rises, recovery circuits get added where appropriate. This is "value added" mining -- no new mining is going on, but you just get more product out what you do mine. Production from almost any brine pond in the world will give you lithium tailings, but almost none bother to extract the lithium salts from them; they're going after other, currently more valuable minerals given the lower lithium concentrations.

Some people have this silly notion of world mining operations as though the Earth was some big ball of "nothing" in the crust, and scattered around this "nothing" are little random deposits of one mineral, and these couple deposits are all there are of that mineral. And, obviously, the real world doesn't work that way; everywhere has minerals of of tremendous variety, in some concentration or another. When you produce products from somewhere, you're going to get tailings that include all sorts of other minerals -- and you're mining, crushing, and concentrating those tailings to boot, so half of the work is already done for you. But if the price of the minerals in the tailings is low, it's not worth recovering further. If the price rises, you start to recover them; it's as simple as that. Example: the recent lithium price spike has led to the development of the Kings Valley in Nevada, a resource capable of producing 25 billion pounds of lithium carbonate -- roughly the same as the "peak lithium" folks say comprise the world's entire known reserves. How is this possible? Because the peak lithium folks don't count the Kings Valley at all, despite 173 boreholes to a depth of 40 meters over 80,000 acres determined an average lithium content of 0.279% and a commercial recovery factor of 85%. Because it's a little more expensive to recover than the currently produced Argentinian lithium, they credit 0kg of it to world reserves.

One thing to remember about lithium: it's very cheap -- only a few dollars per kilogram. So? Well, people don't prospect extensively for cheap minerals whose demand is being easily met with existing reserves. Think for a second of how much oil our insatiable demand has continually turned up over the past century. Now imagine actual exploration for valuable lithium deposits. It's only reasonable to expect major growth in known lithium reserves, probably by orders of magnitude, should lithium suddenly gain any appreciable value.

[edit] The Kicker

Lastly -- and here's the real kicker -- lithium is only a tiny fraction of the cost of a lithium ion battery. Its price could grow eightfold and you'd barely even notice it (and you better believe there'd be a *lot* of new reserves coming online with that much price growth -- the entire ocean's hundreds of trillions of kilograms with prices at $22-32/kg[3]). 1 kWh of automotive li-ion batteries currently costs ~$300-$2000, depending on the type. Manufacture involves around a kilogram of lithium carbonate, which generally ranges from $4-$8 . For example, the Nissan Leaf has a 24kWh battery pack and uses 4kg of lithium[4]. With a lithium/lithium carbonate ratio of 18.788%, this means that Nissan's battery pack uses about 21.3kg of lithium carbonate, or $85 to $170 worth. Compared to the price of the vehicle, this is a practically irrelevant sum; even if the lithium cost $32/kg, this would still only comprise under $700 of the vehicle's price.

In short: Ignore the scare mongering. There's no world shortage of lithium, and never will be.

[edit] FAQ

1) Lithium in the earth's crust is not "reserves." It's resources. Reserves are what's known to be mineable.

Every last bit of it in the upper crust and oceans is mineable at some price or another. Everything has a price point. People grind up entire kimberlite pipes just to get the occasional diamond.

2) It's not economically extractable except from lithium salts.

The word "economically", by its very definition, depends on what price you get for what product and how much it cost you to produce.

3) Reserves are known to be 11m tons.

At current prices with current technology. All reserves are relative to a price point. The higher prices rise, the exponentially more becomes economically viable. If you'll buy water in Namibia for a tenth of a penny per gallon, I don't have much I can sell you; it's a desert. But if you'll buy it for a penny per gallon, I can sell you the Atlantic ocean's worth thanks to desalination.

All resources work this way.

4) Extracting lithium from the crust is like saying there's so much water in the ocean that we should desalinate it and grow our crops.

You're exactly right! If we were willing to pay ten times as much for our crops, we could do *just that*. If people are willing to pay ten times as much for lithium, they can get it from seawater lithium extraction[5], from reserve circuits in brine extractions with lower lithium concentrations, and from thousands of other sources.

5) Magnesium, as a byproduct, isn't worth anything if you flood the market while producing lithium and create a glut.

There is absolutely no way you'll glut the market with magnesium as a byproduct of lithium mining. The world produces about 440,000 tonnes[6] of magnesium per year, and if prices were lower, that number would rise a lot.

6) Creating tiny little facilities all over the place to process random tailings is hardly efficient.

"Efficient"? From the market's perspective, who cares when you're making money? All that matters is what is *profitable*, and what is *profitable* depends on A) technology, and B) market prices.

7) The price of lithium isn't the point. The supply is.

But that's *exactly* the point -- supply is dependant on price. 10x the price, and you can easily afford to extract it even from seawater. Yet you wouldn't even notice a 10x price increase for lithium carbonate in the cost of li-ion batteries.

[edit] What, you're *still* concerned

All right, already -- then use a sodium-ion battery (same thing, but using sodium (as in "sodium chloride", i.e., table salt and sea salt) instead of lithium) which promises even better energy density. Or any of the dozen or so other high energy density chemistries.

[edit] See Also

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