Will Afghanistan Become the "Saudi Arabia of Lithium"?

afghan man photo

Image: Flickr, CC
Not So Fast...
Who would have thought that "Afghanistan" would someday be associated with "electric cars"? Well, maybe some people did. As John points out in his post today, it's been known for decades that Afghanistan contains vast mineral resources, including immense quantities of the main component of most portable electronics and electric car batteries: lithium. But what does this mean for the future of the electric cars, the environment, and Afghanistan? Let's look at a few ways this story could unfold.
afghanistan map image

Image: Wikipedia, GFDL/CC
What Can We Realistically Expect in the Near-Future?
Sadly, the answer is "not much". Afghanistan is a very poor country still in the middle of an interminable armed conflict. It has almost zero infrastructure and any attempts to improve that can run into a variety of problems (corruption, Taliban, lack of capital and tools to build that infrastructure). So while the country might have a lot of lithium (and other valuable minerals like iron, copper, cobalt, gold, etc), these probably won't be mined in any quantity for a while. We're likely to see Bolivia turn into the Saudi Arabia of lithium before we see Afghanistan claim that title...

Good for the Afghan Population?
Some optimists are saying that mining will become the new foundation of the Afghan economy (replacing heroin...) and help the country climb out of abject poverty and instability. I sincerely hope that's what happens, and that they will exploit those mineral resources responsibly and not poison their air, ground, and water. But sadly, mineral riches don't automatically equal an improvement in the lives of the locals; just look at all those African countries that have vast quantities of minerals but are some of the worst places in the world to live. Let's hope Afghanistan can avoid that.

hamid karzai afghanistan photo

Image: Wikipedia, CC
Global Benefits in the Long-Term
If we look at things on a more global scale and from a longer-term perspective, a new supply of lithium can only help drive down the cost of lithium-based batteries for portable electronics and electric cars. But the beauty here is that unlike fossil fuels, lithium isn't destroyed when it's used. Old car lithium-ion batteries can still hold some charge, so they can still be useful (see Wind Farms Might Buy Your Old Electric Car Batteries), but even lithium-ion batteries that aren't even good for that anymore can simply be recycled (see Here's What Happens to a Tesla Electric Car Battery at the End of its Life).

It's also likely that the adoption of electric cars and plug-in hybrids will be gradual enough that the supply of lithium won't be a bottleneck, at least not for geophysical reasons (geopolitics is another matter). Many are worried that lithium might be the oil of the 21st century, but chances are that the title is going to go to fresh water (demand is going up, but not supply).

More on Lithium
Bolivia has Enough Lithium for 4.8 Billion Electric Cars!
Lithium-Air Battery Could Have Up to 10x Storage Capacity of Current Lithium-Ion Tech
More on Electric Cars
Firefighters Cut a Chevy Volt to Pieces During Safety Training (Video)
Can Electric Cars Survive the Canadian Winter?

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