Is Lithium Better than Petroleum?

What do lithium and petroleum have in common?

“Lithium” comes from the Greek word for stone;  “petroleum” contains the Greek root for the word rock.

Both are important sources of energy.

The largest reserves of both are found in countries hostile to US interests.

Both are in limited supply so that alternatives need to be found.

The key difference, though, is that petroleum is supposed to be our past and lithium–as in the lithium ion batteries expected to be widely used in electric vehicles–is supposed to be our future.

OK, I’ve stretched the parallels a little–petroleum is a source of energy, while lithium ion batteries are a means of storing energy–but not too much. And given that some support for alternative energy sources is motivated by the desire to free ourselves from dependence on unfriendly countries, the geopolitical dimension stands out.  Bolivia is believed to contain the worlds largest deposits of lithium, but the US State Department notes that “Bolivian government hostility and provocations have caused bilateral relations to deteriorate sharply in the past year”. And Bolivia’s president and mining minister are not exactly welcoming foreign developers with open arms.

My point is that even as excitement over electric cars is building, it’s worth keeping in mind that all engineering involves trade offs, and state-of-the-art battery technology may still not be good enough.

All cars need batteries and electric cars need big batteries. According to a recent report by Lux Research (registration required), the dominant battery technology for electric cars is lithium-ion.

Lithium is a chemical element that is not terribly rare but rarely found in high concentrations. Today, it’s mostly obtained from brine lakes and salt pans and is supplied largely by just four producers located in Chile, Argentina and China, according to Lux.

Supposedly half the world’s reserves of usable lithium are found in a remote and pristine area of Bolivia and are so far untapped. According to the BBC, the Bolivian government has taken a tough stance toward foreign exploitation of this resource.

Meanwhile, a study by an outfit called Meridian International Research warns that mass production of lithium carbonate, the raw material for lithium ion batteries, is not environmentally sound. Furthermore, it says many accounts overstate the true recoverable reserves of lithium.

Because lithium supplies are limited, Lux, which projects that some 2.7 million hybrid-electric vehicles will be sold in 2012, says demand for lithium that will move market prices for the element, raising the economics hurdle for electric vehicles.

Hybrid electric vehicles, which operate on both gasoline and electricity, have been called a “transitional technology,” meaning they are a step on the road a pure electric vehicle. It appears that lithium ion batteries are transitional technology too. But it’s a transition we need to make to a more sustainable future.

Further reading: Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, has just published an article on electric cars in the McKinsey & Co.’s journal. He wants to subsidize the retrofitting of existing cars with hybrid electric drive and is concerned that the US develop domestic battery production capability.

What do you think?

[Updated on 2/4/09 to correct reference to the country with the large lithium deposits. ]

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1 Comment

Filed under energy storage, transportation

One response to “Is Lithium Better than Petroleum?

  1. Pingback: Energy Technologies and Unintended Consequences « Green Research

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