In December 2006, William Tahil, an energy analyst, published a paper online titled “The Trouble with Lithium.” His argument would be alarming to the many people who had placed their hopes for a cleaner, more prosperous economy on the rapid development of electric cars powered by lithium-ion batteries.
The trouble, he proposed, was that the world didn’t contain enough economically recoverable lithium to support such a switch. Moreover, the viable pockets of lithium that did exist were concentrated in just a few countries. “If the world was to swap oil for Li-Ion based battery propulsion,” he wrote, “South America would become the new Middle East. Bolivia would become far more of a focus of world attention than Saudi Arabia ever was. The USA would again become dependent on external sources of supply of a critical strategic mineral while China--home to significant lithium deposits--“would have a certain degree of self sufficiency.”
This article was adapted from Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy by senior editor Seth Fletcher, which comes out May 10 from Hill & Wang.Tahil wasn’t the most credible source. Earlier that year, he had published another paper, “Ground Zero: The Nuclear Demolition of the World Trade Centre.” In it, he argued that two nuclear reactors, buried some 260 feet below the World Trade Center, were deliberately melted down at the same moment the hijacked airliners hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Nonetheless, “peak lithium” was an irresistible story. Tesla Motors and General Motors had both recently unveiled the first electric cars of the 21st century, both of which ran on lithium-based batteries. In July 2008, the U.K. Guardian summed up the issue: “With oil supplies a continuing concern, focus is switching to lithium for electric vehicles. But debate rages about how much of it is available.”
In January 2010, I attended the second-annual Lithium Supply and Markets Conference in Las Vegas. Between panel sessions, I intercepted R. Keith Evans, a geologist who has spent more than four decades studying global lithium deposits. Tahil’s paper had drawn Evans out of retirement. “It was total bullshit,” he said.
Riding an escalator from the conference hall to the casino, he explained how Tahil inspired him to write an updated estimate of the world’s lithium supply, “An Abundance of Lithium.” This was not the first lithium scare, Evans said. He told me about an urgent conference held by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1975 to warn of an impending shortage of lithium--for use in nuclear fusion reactors. That scare inspired the first serious estimate of the Western world’s lithium supply, which in 1975 was pegged at 10.65 million metric tons. In subsequent years, geologists steadily discovered more deposits. By 2010, Evans estimated the known world supply to be some 28.4 million metric tons of lithium metal, or 150 million metric tons of lithium carbonate, the most common form in which lithium is produced and sold. In contrast, the global market for lithium that year was roughly 100,000 metric tons. An electric-car boom could double that demand within a decade, but even so, Evans said, there would be plenty of lithium.
By the time I met Evans, another potential resource shortage was making headlines. China, which produces 95 percent of the world’s rare-earth metals--a group of elements heavily used in the manufacture of hybrid cars, windmills and other clean-energy technologies--signaled its intent to cut back on exports, claiming that it had to reduce production in order to protect its reserves. Last September, China used its rare-earth monopoly as a weapon, suspending shipments to Japan in retaliation for the seizure of a Chinese fishing vessel. Almost immediately, U.S. Department of Energy officials were on Capitol Hill testifying before Congress about the state of American rare-earth-element supplies.
Since then, concern about the supply of elements used in clean-energy technology has only grown more acute. This February, a committee of scientists representing the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society warned that our mineral-supply vulnerabilities extend beyond rare earths. The U.S. relies on other countries for 90 percent of its “energy-critical elements”--29 elements, including rare earths, whose intrinsic properties make them essential ingredients in thin-film solar panels, high-efficiency wind turbines, advanced electric-vehicle motors, high-capacity batteries and other clean-energy innovations. Disruptions in supply, the committee warned, could “significantly inhibit” meaningful deployment of fossil-fuel-free inventions that “could otherwise be capable of transforming the way we produce, transmit, store, or conserve energy.”
Not all of these elements are rare, but none are as abundant as the dominant raw materials of 20th-century industry: iron, aluminum, silicon and the nine others that make up 99 percent of the Earth’s crust. Historically, only scientists working on lab-scale projects had much use for them, so geologists had little incentive to look for new sources. The consequence is a severe lack of knowledge about the prevalence, availability and cost-effectiveness of energy-critical elements. This lack of knowledge breeds anxiety. In August 2010, for instance, the libertarian magazine Reason ran the headline “Forget peak oil. What about peak lithium, peak neodymium, and peak phosphorus?” In the case of lithium, the panic has begun to subside as we’ve learned more about the element’s abundance. But will the same be true of the other 28 energy-critical elements? And what can the state of lithium supplies tell us about the rest of them?
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.