Photo: Wikipedia, GFDL
"Lithium could bring us prosperity."At 4,085 square miles, Salar de Uyuni in Southwest Bolivia is the world's largest salt flat. Those salts contain large amounts of sodium, potassium, magnesium and lithium, and these days, it's the last element on that list that is attracting attention. According to the USGS, Bolivia has 35% of the world's lithium resources, and since in the coming years, electric cars and plug-in hybrids that use lithium-ion batteries are expected to greatly increase in numbers, this could mean big changes for Bolivia, South-America's poorest country.
Photo: Wikipedia, Free Art License
Peak Lithium Not in Sight
Bloomberg has a very interesting feature piece on Bolivia's lithium reserves, and the obstacles that it faces to actually create a lithium mine there (the country has so far rejected investment offers, but that might change if it can't raise the money on its own), but the most interesting piece of information to me was that these lithium reserves would be enough for about 4.8 billion electric cars.
Not that it's necessarily a good idea to have that many electric cars, but it's certainly good to know that in just one place, without counting all the other lithium sources around the world and the undiscovered reserves (lithium hasn't been very expensive historically, so there hasn't been too much exploration), there is enough of the stuff to make billions of large batteries. And lithium batteries are recyclable, so we could eventually have a fairly closed cycle.
Photo: Nasa, public domain
Of course, there are some geopolitical fears: What if Bolivia and other lithium producers create a cartel like OPEC? What if they artificially inflate prices, blackmail the rest of the world, etc?
Well, even if they did, it would still be an improvement on OPEC. But chances are that if lithium becomes very expensive, new sources will be found via exploration (at least for a while) and recycling will become more efficient (how much lithium could we extract just from our landfills?).
After all, lithium isn't like oil: You need a few pounds of it to make a battery, and then that battery can last for many years. It's not like oil where you need to buy dozens of gallons of it every week or two to keep your vehicle running.
And who's to say that by the time these kinds of geopolitical problems develop we won't be transitioning to something better (hypercapacitors made with carbon nanotubes maybe?). Pretty hard to run out of carbon...
In short: While there are things that could go wrong if we become dependent on lithium, it very probably wouldn't be nearly as bad as our current dependence on oil. Many editorials these days are trying to make us afraid of lithium, but oil is a lot scarier.
What if we could bring countries like Bolivia out of poverty and clean up the transportation sector significantly at the same time?
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