Will Electric Cars Require We Deal With “Lithium Dictators”?

In January, I wrote a piece for Triple Pundit prompted by President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he outlined a goal to put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. I asked the question – is there is enough lithium supply to meet Obama’s EV goal? Since lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries are the preferred battery chemistry for the immediate future, this was an important consideration, and my conclusion was, that yes, there is enough lithium to reach the goal. This was based on known lithium reserves reported by the US Geological Survey (USGS), coupled with mining projections, indicating the manufacture of 4.5 million vehicles could be supported by 2020.

However, on June 30th, Fast Company ran “The Rush to Electric cars will replace oil Barons with Lithium Dictators”, which puts the lithium supply matter into a different context – less about whether there is enough, and more about whether we’re jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire as we move to EVs. Will it cause a shift away from the geo-political problems with oil to potentially equally difficult problems dealing with lithium producing countries like Bolivia, who are less than friendly to the USA? Re-framing the question as to whether or not an EV future requires we deal with dictators, I thought I’d take another look.

Since I wrote on the subject last time, the USGS has published their 2011 Mineral Commodities survey with some new data on lithium resources, some of which I’ve shown below. The data represents the estimated country reserves, adjusted between 2010 and 2011, along with the tonnage mined in 2010. “Reserves” means only the economically recoverable material, and gives an indication of where lithium is obtainable today. It should be noted, Bolivia is not included in the “reserves” figures by the USGS, as its lithium is not currently economically recoverable, despite the fact that the country has an estimated 9,000,000 ton identified lithium resource. It’s important to recognize that “reserves” and “resource” in this context are different. As a resource becomes a proven recoverable reserve, the reserve amount can rise. This is what the USGS reports:

Countryest. reserves ’10 reportest. reserves ’11 reportmined in 2010
USA38,000 tons38,000 tonswithheld data
Argentina800,000850,0002,900 tons
Canada180,000– –
Total9,900,00013,000,00025,300 (excluding US)

So, overall, the world’s reserves have risen, but how much of this stuff do we need? The Fast Company article cites British research firm Roskill, which project that if EVs achieve a global penetration rate of 5% of cars sold by 2020, 60,000 tons of lithium will be needed for batteries. This is a little higher than the figure I quoted in January from the TRU Group, who estimated global lithium demand would be 54,000 tons by 2020 and could support 4.5 million EVs. JD Power projects a 7.5% penetration of EVs by 2020 in global terms (combined with hybrids, which don’t all use lithium batteries) so, thereabouts, these numbers seem fairly consistent with one another.

Clearly then, production will need to rise substantially from where it is today at 25,300 tons (underestimated by whatever amount the USA produces, which is withheld data) while it seems feasible that this shortfall can be made up from the known reserves of 13 million tons reported by the USGS. The TRU Group project supply can reach in excess of 60,000 tons by 2020 if required.

Fortunately, the estimated recoverable reserves as shown exclude Bolivia, meaning we don’t have to deal with this country where a 9 million ton known resource exists. We thereby avoid sensitive ecological issues, which we’d run into due to the fact that Bolivia’s lithium is buried under salt flats, as well as avoiding tricky politics.

In fact, from the data above, the major lithium producing countries are not, for the most part, run by dictators, (I’ll exclude Zimbabwe from that statement) but are countries that are established democracies, such as Chile and Argentina. China, while not a democracy, is nonetheless a pretty established trading partner with the west, but as they tend to be an increasingly resource hungry nation, the handling of their reserves is questionable. After all, they are heavily invested in their own domestic EV development. Who knows they may be looking to export finished EVs to the west.

So, I’ll not conclude by making a sweeping statement that lithium supply is devoid of geo-political issues, or that every last ounce of known reserves is there for the taking without incurring other problems, or that it is all equally accessible and economically viable. But perhaps the numbers suggest that EV projections don’t necessitate dealing with dictators. But mining is a sensitive issue, and resource use in general should not be a casual discussion, so I invite comments on this subject, as like any resource, it needs to be managed properly.

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Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

5 responses

  1. The “dictators” you may be referring to,
    (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba, and now Peru) are really populist elected heads of State who have shown concern for the thus far oppressed native population. It is no longer possible for industrialized countries to exploit natural resources for dismally little return for the host third world country. The very greed that is threatening our economy will no longer work in these populist states.

    1. There are also lessons to be learned from rulers of oil rich nations who have gained huge wealth from those reserves, and who have been able to stay in power because of it. The common problem being that the populations of those countries fail to realize the benefits.

  2. You seem to have missed the recent comment by the Argentine industry minister suggesting a Chile-Argentina-Bolivian lithium cartel. In the short term they could cause some pain but….there is lots of lithium elsewhere that could be developed in the longer term….and the lithium in an electric car costs under $150. You also fail to mention that the largest producer is now Australia….

  3. Great topic, Phil. It seems like the Aussies combined with the Great White North could provide a legitimate buffer from undesirable bartering, at least for the next decade.

    When going back to comparing this to our foreign oil situation, I have to believe that battery recycling also has to play a part in the equation. I know that portions of car batteries are expected to be recycled or reclaimed, but is lithium amongst them? I have heard there is high hopes for a secondary market in EV batteries for power storage uses, but at the end of the day, when these batteries are “done” for all intents and purposes, is there any lithium left to recover? This could help make the comparison more favorable given that oil is kind of a one way street.

    1. Yes, I will be writing about second-life battery usage, and also investigate recycling. It seems it is possible technically, but less economically compelling than recycling traditional lead-acid batteries.

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