Oil is no longer cheap, however, and it's certainly not limitless. We have entered what Hampshire College professor Michael Klare calls the "age of tough oil," in which the easily extractable deposits have been depleted, sending us drilling for oil miles beneath the surface of the ocean. Meanwhile, the growing Indian and Chinese middle classes appear poised to double the number of cars on the planet by 2050, to as many as two billion automobiles.
If they are going to replace gas-powered cars, electric vehicles need the best possible batteries, and today those batteries are based on lithium. Lithium is the third-lightest element on the periodic table, well suited to lightweight energy storage. Because of its extreme reactivity, it can form the basis for more-energy-dense batteries than just about any other element. The rechargeable lithium battery has already helped transform portable electronics, enabling the shift from the 30-ounce Motorola DynaTAC (commonly known as the Michael-Douglas-in-Wall Street phone) to the 4.8-ounce iPhone 4. Now automakers are betting that lithium could be equally transformative for transportation.
But lithium and the batteries based on it are only part of a larger system. Exploiting every milliwatt-hour of electricity stored in that battery requires the most efficient electric motors possible--and the magnets within those motors call for rare-earth elements such as neodymium and dysprosium. Generating electricity from renewable sources such as wind and sun requires ultra-efficient machines as well. Naturally, the most efficient wind turbines use rare-earth-based magnets; advanced thin-film solar panels use either tellurium or indium.
Yet the cost and availability of the elements that deliver such efficiency could be a problem. To be deployed on a massive scale, the machines of the clean-energy age must be cost-competitive with today's fossil-fuel-based systems. But clean technology can't be cost-competitive unless it's manufactured on a large scale, and nothing is going to get built in volume if the raw ingredients aren't available and affordable.
Given infinite money, as the APS/MRS report notes, "there is no absolute limit on the availability of any chemical element, at least in the foreseeable future." Theoretically, scientists can wring tiny quantities of many elements from a random bucket of dirt--it just might cost a fortune to do so. So there are two key questions about neodymium, tellurium, lithium and the 26 other energy-critical elements: How much is there? And more crucially, what will it cost to get them out of the ground?
The world's largest lithium producer, Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile S.A. (SQM), operates in Chile's Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth, where the soil is so barren that NASA has used it to calibrate microbe-detecting Mars robots. Last May, I traveled to northern Chile to see the company's operations. Andrés Yaksic, a marketing manager from SQM, met me in San Pedro de Atacama, a tourist oasis about 50 miles north of SQM's plant. On a bright, chilly morning, we set out for the facility. The sky was a spotless cobalt blue as we drove south toward the Salar de Atacama, the salt flat that is one of the world's most abundant sources of lithium. SQM says the Salar de Atacama contains some 40 million tons of measured, economically extractable lithium carbonate.
After about an hour on the highway, we turned right onto a gravel road through the salar. Bulldozed salt dams and white mounds the size of suburban office buildings speckled the landscape. We stopped at a small office building and put on boots, blaze-orange safety vests and hard hats. Then we walked outside to meet Álvaro Cisternas, a stout, deeply tanned operations manager who would be taking us out to the evaporation pools.
Satellite images of SQM's facility show huge white and cerulean squares carved into cocoa-colored earth, like the world's largest swimming facility. In these pools, brine pumped from a subsurface aquifer bakes in the quasi-Martian sun for months. Water evaporates, the brine concentrates, and in time, minerals begin to precipitate. Later, the brine designated for lithium production is piped into a dedicated series of evaporation pools, each one a deepening shade of yellow. A tanker truck then carts the final product, a solution of 6 percent lithium, to a plant three hours away on the Pacific coast. There it is processed into lithium carbonate, a white powder that looks so much like cocaine that I didn't dare try to fly back to the U.S. with samples.
After we walked among the pools, Cisternas drove us to the top of a small mountain of salt that had been set aside as an overlook. Evaporation pools, tractors, trucks, outbuildings and hills of valuable salt stretched for what appeared to be miles, though the air there was so dry and clear and the view was so completely uninterrupted that getting a firm perspective on the operation's size was difficult.
SQM extracts 31 percent of the world's lithium supply from this salt flat each year, which is just 40,000 of the salar's known 40 million metric tons of reserves. Earlier, Yaksic had told me that within a matter of months, operations could scale up to supply three or four times the total global demand. Now, to emphasize the company's world-beating capacity, Cisternas and Yaksic pointed to group of pools in the distance and explained that every year SQM actually pumps some hundreds of thousands of metric tons of lithium back into the salar—lithium that has been unavoidably harvested in the pursuit of the real moneymaker. Despite being the world's largest lithium supplier, SQM generates more revenue from "specialty plant nutrition," potassium fertilizer for our hydrangeas and geraniums.
Among the energy-critical elements, lithium is abnormally easy to mine, at least from brine-based sources like the Salar de Atacama. Nevertheless, the situation with many other critical elements might also be less dire than is often reported. "Most of the issues, in my opinion, are a bit overblown," says MIT's Gerbrand Ceder. "There are enormous buffers in the system."
The first is simply that if the price of an element goes up, people have incentive to spend more money refining that element from raw ore. "There's a lot of mining waste that still contains a lot of metal," Ceder explains. That waste can, in many instances, yield more metal than we're currently getting from it. In the case of energy-critical elements, whose production typically piggybacks on the extraction of more widely used minerals, the scrap pile could be a valuable source of reserves.
Another, often overlooked buffer is simple hierarchy of demand: If the supply of an element is limited, then the industries that need it most will take it away from those that need it less. Platinum, for example, is an indispensable catalyst in the exhaust filters that car companies are required to install on their automobiles. If platinum demand goes up, that doesn't mean car companies will use fewer catalytic converters. It means couples will exchange fewer platinum wedding rings.
Tellurium provides another example. In addition to cadmium-telluride thin-film solar panels, tellurium is used to make thermoelectric devices (which convert wasted heat into electricity) and steel alloys. If demand for tellurium goes up, it will quickly become clear who needs it most. "What you find for tellurium is that the solar industry sits way on top of the chain," Ceder says. "The value that they get from it is so high that the steel guys are going to get screwed, and then after that the thermoelectric guys."
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.