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.
Click here for a closer look at six elements that could fuel a clean-energy revolution.
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?
What about liquid salt? Mineral salt and sea salt is very abundant.
John Kanzius has discovered how to use salt water as a fuel....
One thing that people forget is, unlike oil lithium batteries can be recycled once they have reached the end of their useful lives. Same with the rare earths in generators. After a few decades, the best source of these elements may be recycling rather than mining.
Sure - batteries and electric motors can be recycled. Just as we do with steel today. No comparison to fossil fuels. Once used, its gone.
@NOM I doubt it will be worth the trouble. Cat Converters have platinum in them. you know their are THOUSANDS of cars just sitting there waiting to be junked, or already junked and still... just sitting there. no one bothers to get the platinum out of those cars because its just not worth the time and money. some companies recycle gold and other metals out of old electronics, but its no easy task and the profit margins are very slim. It is often easier just either mine more, even if its rare, or find an alternative. but yeah. if no alternative is found (highly unlikely, just look at the DET story, new compound is 1000 times more effective) then we can recycle old batteries.
on a side note its scary to think that the worlds attention will turn more and more to south America and china, even though we are in two wars in the middle east, I think the middle east will be long lost memory in our life times after oil becomes less important.
you're lucky to buy a used car that still has a CAT, people loves stealing Pt++. Lithium CAN be recycled, unless, of course, THIS http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-05/jeff-bezos-invests-195-million-nuclear-fusion-technology happens to it. buh-bye Lithium, hello Helium and Tritium. Maybe we should try breaking some heavier element down into Lithium.. who said Alchemy wasn't real? probably someone who didn't die a cancerous death, i suppose..
One of the best articles ever read in PopScience. Thanks a lot for this.
I signed up to say this because this was one time too many to listen to this ignorant claim. What John Kanzius discovered was a way to use certain radiowaves to extract hydrogen and oxygen gas from water using salt as a catalyst. The saltwater is not fuel; the electricity used to generate the radiowaves is.
A carusing his discovery would likely operate like so:
Compare this to a standard electric vehicle:
Anyone who know about basic energy conversion knows that one is likely to lose energy at each stage, and that fewer stages are more likely to be efficient.
John Kanzius' discovery's most likely use I can see in relation to energy is recharging hydrogen fuel cells.
The aliens power their spacecraft using water. The hydrogen atom in the water molecule consists of the proton and the electron. Because the proton is the electron, the magnitude of the charge on each is equal but opposite so that the electron is attracted to the proton. The electron can not reach the proton because there is a quantum angular momentum field that depends on the Planck constant h and the speed of light. Because the Planck constant is the linear mass of the universe times the Planck wavelength times the speed of light, the angular term is proportional to the square of the speed of light. Thus flooding the hydrogen atom with low density hyperspace energy with a 1 m/s light speed, the term disappears and the electron entering the proton causes it to decay into 300 electrons.
Thus water, which is not located in a particular country, can be used to power our societies.
excellent article...very much enjoyed...
I wonder if similar minerals could be found in death valley or one of the salt flats out west...
Graphene may be the answer. It's abundant, and it seems like new uses for it are being discovered every day. Graphene devices may not be viable for a few more years, but it looks promising.
I do not agree that Oil can't be recycled. It has just been broken down into new products like water and CO2 while releasing energy. Apply energy back to those resulting components and you can create a hydrocarbon once again. Great way to take that CO2 out of the air. Work has just started on this, but it gives hope for the future. Hydrocarbons are useful because they are portable in liquid form. If we can recyle the negative CO2, then they become CO2 neutral and nothing to fear.
Ok... so were going to make a simple comparison.
Big Oil, is going to be Big Tobacco.
So here we have Big Tobacco, selling its product.
A clean much safer alt comes along, the electronic cig.
Big Tobacco starts losing billions. Big Tobacco starts running smear campaigns, lobbyists push to ban the cleaner safer alternative that is cutting into multi billion dollar profits. Side groups who get direct funding who stand to lose said funding, and other "Bigs" like Big Pharma push to ban because it's also cutting into their profits.
So now how is this relevant?
Let's imagine tomorrow, XX Group develops clean, cheap, abundant and renewable energies. Big Oil proves to lose everything. Do you just think they will accept this? Or will they fight, political red tape... this new technology becomes assaulted, possibly rendering it unusable simply because a few schmucks in suits stand to lose the gold lined pockets?
Bottom line… it sounds good. Even if the tech exists, it will never go mainstream. Too many rich people have far too much to lose.
Several comments have mentioned recycling. I agree. And, as an additional incentive to recycle, I think there should be a deposit required when purchasing Lithium batteries - much like we did when I was a kid for CocaCola bottles, and like some states do now for Aluminum cans.
The deposit should be enough to give purchasers a good financial incentive to recycle. And, obviously, some folks are just too lazy to bother - so the deposit can be used by the state to develop the infrastructure to support the recycling processes, or for further research into alternate energy.
I'd certainly be willing to pay a deposit to help ensure lithium is recycled - how about you?
Sorry, but your pessimism leaves me undeterred. Even if all the major car makers felt significant pressure from XX Group, so long as there is anyone to get around the problems, the tech will survive, thrive, dominate. That's why we have Linux, Android and Tesla.
When GM succeeded in leading a resistance against the State of California to force them to make EVs, and the state caved in, it did not stop everyone. Many individuals, with varying technical and monetary assets, decided to ignore the Big Guys if they were not willing to make EVs. That's how Tesla happened, and Fisker, and Phoenix, and Aptera and many others; not all of them survived, but that's how and why many private individuals also took their Porsches, Toyotas and BMWs, ripped out the drive trains, and converted them to electric power.
If there is enough passion to do so, a focused individual will find a way; and, once the legacy car makers saw that people such as Elon Musk were willing to bypass them if established companies were not willing to do what was best for greater good, The Big Guys reconsidered, and also began producing the Volt, Leaf, and other electric vehicles for the mass market.
Your pessimism and willingness to bend to pressure does not impress me. You could gain my respect by being just as determined as thousands of others that are willing to get around the obstacles.
What I think the article forgot to mention was that although yes, if we were to tomorrow or even over the next four years convert ALL the cars to electric, then yes, we would have a shortage of lithium. However, as of now, we have enough lithium to have plenty of electric cars made.
Also the article forgot to mention changing technology. Battery technology does not stop at the lithium battery. Ideally, batteries the size of a book could store enough energy for a standard house for several years. Obviously lithium batteries cannot do this, nor I think we will have batteries will achieve this standard for several years. But the point is, Lithium is not the end of the line. Dump enough money into private battery research not controlled by oil companies, and eventually we will find a better solution.
William Tahil is a Muslim, naturally he wants to protect his Arab masters and his desert cult religion. All their science revolves around quran. There is no logic, reason, rational!
Learn more of islamic lies in FaithFreedom.org
I've been wondering why we don't just use salt or H20 engines. A guy in Australia is a few years away from mass-production of a salt-water motorcycle.
Electric cars are a nice idea that Big Energy companies can get behind because then we'll always be stuck on the grid.
With a salt-water engine, suddenly Oil doesn't matter, Propane doesn't matter, Coal doesn't matter. The Big Energy companies will kill to protect their terror-tory (emphasis added).
The salt-water engine inventor in Florida died just before he could sign a mass-production contract and so will anyone else who threatens their monopoly.