Fortunately, no one will get a monopoly on lithium
Lithium, like rare earths, tungsten and several technology metals, has its geopolitical issues. China is not the primary one in this case (as it is with so many others where it dominates production) but it is trying to get involved, and it does control the world’s biggest mine, located in Australia, in partnership with Rockwood of Germany. No, the concern is more about Bolivia and Chile.
Perhaps concern is a little strong; it might be better to say, however, that it is in the interests of the developed, manufacturing countries, to ensure that producers outside Bolivia (particularly) and Chile do not get a too powerful a hold, as China does with rare earths, tungsten, and antimony (among others). Fortunately, with lithium, development of projects in Western nations is proceeding apace, with some of those contenders now associated with InvestorIntel.
This issue was brought up in New Scientist magazine, within a detailed article titled “The battery revolution that will let us all be power brokers”. The authors have some questions about lithium batteries, one of which is geopolitical (another being the fire risk, although that seems to have receded as users refine technologies).
“Dependence on lithium might not be the best bet, however,” they write. “For a start, plentiful as the element is, it’s not always easy for international markets to get at. The largest identified resources are in Chile and Bolivia, which between them hold more than 40 per cent of the planet’s known totals.”
They remind us that those countries have lithium in chloride brine, but they warn that Bolivia has not opened up to any foreign mining companies, insisting instead that any lithium extracted there be processed within Bolivia for batteries and electric cars. Well, that is Bolivia’s right, of course. We have already seen in the past few weeks China’s CAMC Engineering sign a deal to produce potassium salts (including lithium) at the Uyuni salt lake, and German and Swiss companies are competing to be given the green light to build a lithium carbonate plant in Bolivia. In Chile, Baton Rouge chemical company Abermarle Corp is close to putting into action its lithium carbonate plant at Antofagasta.
However, I think New Scientist need not worry too much about this issue. Unlike China and rare earths, both Bolivia and Chile (and Argentina, which also has enormous lithium resources), are not reserving the resource for their own, domestically controlled companies. The point is that foreign operators are being welcomed, with various degrees of conditions and controls. Then we have emerging producers elsewhere: several advanced projects are being developed in Australia, as just one example. (And Australia has brine lakes, too, which contain lithium, although the main interest there is for the potash content.)
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But the magazine is on firmer ground in being impressed with the developments of the lithium-ion battery.
The batteries were, the magazine writes, “born in the early 1990s as a quirk of the dying cassette tape industry”. The rise of compact discs had Sony casting around for a way to find new uses for the equipment installed to make the tapes for cassettes. “Instead of coating the tape with magnetic film that could record date, they started coating it with goopy layers of an electrode that could store electric charge.”
And so the first lithium-ion batteries were born, instantly twice as good as anything else out there for compact energy storage. These batteries were on hand just when they needed – for the new generation of camcorders, mobile phones and laptops. Now, in 2015, they account for around a third of the money spent on rechargeable batteries globally.
Since 1991, notes the magazine, the energy power stored in a given volume within the lithium-ion battery has tripled, these batteries now being adequate to make possible the Tesla automobile story (among other applications, like home storage).
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