Photo via Phillie Casablanca via Flickr CC
Chile's Salar de Atacama desert is a major source for the world's lithium, key ingredient in the batteries we use in our laptops, cell phones and other gadgets every day. And, key ingredient in batteries for a growing selection of electric and electric hybrid cars. As the demand for battery-powered devices increases, so does the demand for lithium and therefore the earthly resources that provide it. Check out this video from CBS about the production and demand.
While all it takes is a glance out the window to see that our demand for gadgets is constantly growing, what is very important to note is this little snippit:
"This fall, Mercedes will sell the first lithium powered plug-in car. At least six more carmakers plan their own models."
As we shift towards electric cars, specifically towards electric cars utilizing lithium batteries, the production of the substance- how, where, and under what conditions - will be something to keep an eye on, especially considering:
"Energy analyst Ben Johnson said, "it looks very similar to an OPEC-style cartel. It's highly concentrated. The various producers are very secretive about their expansion plans and about their pricing movements." "
Thinking that lithium is the next oil is probably an overreaction right now. Because lithium hasn't ever been used to the extent oil has, exploration for sources hasn't been conducted on the same level. There could be numerous unknown sources for it that would mitigate a rush to monopolize the currently known sources. Plus, the paranoia about producers being secretive about expansion plans...well, that's true for most businesses.
Also, as Mike points out, the parallel with oil is not perfect either; a barrel of oil doesn't last long, but a lithium-ion battery can last many years and then be recycled.
Nonetheless, while we often pay particular attention to the use of minerals like cassiterite and coltan in the production of gadgets, as these are minerals also mined from conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it's clear we need to pay added attention to the sources of other materials like lithium that seem more benign, for now.
More on Dicey Minerals Used in Gadgets
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The Incredible Story of Conflict Mineral Mining in Images
The Incredible Story of Conflict Mineral Mining (Slideshow)