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'Saudi Arabia of Lithium' To Produce Batteries By 2016

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Whether you’re concerned about national security or have green motivations as well, you might be eagerly awaiting electric cars and plug-ins in hopes of escaping your reliance on OPEC and foreign oil, but as of late there’s been plenty of coverage suggesting that future battery supply could be limited by control of lithium stores.

“The Saudi Arabia of lithium,” Bolivia, has about 50 percent of the world’s lithium deposits in its salt flats and now plans to produce its own batteries by 2016, reports the BBC, provided the demand is there.

What’s more, Bolivia’s mining minister, Luis Echazu, told the BBC that the South American country has been negotiating directly with Sumitomo and Mitsubishi, among other companies. In any agreement with a company, the Bolivian state will have the majority stake.

Those are among the pieces of information discussed in this week’s episode of Peter Day’s World of Business, on BBC Radio, which over a half-hour report goes into some depth on Bolivia’s plan to capitalize on its vast stores of lithium—necessary to produce the lithium-ion batteries that will permit satisfactory performance, range, and packaging.

Nissan LEAF electric vehicle

Nissan LEAF electric vehicle

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2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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The study will examine how plug-in hybrids are recharged and how this will affect marketing of these vehicles

The study will examine how plug-in hybrids are recharged and how this will affect marketing of these vehicles

Enlarge Photo

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo

Lithium-ion batteries are essential for both full electric vehicles (EVs), like the upcoming 2012 Nissan Leaf, or plug-ins like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.

“It’s utterly and completely quiet. The sky is a perfect blue. The land stretching to distant peaks is completely flat and dazzlingly, achingly white,” says Day, who reports that the vast Salar de Uyuni region of Bolivia, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, is largely underdeveloped and short on the resources needed to harvest the lithium. Meanwhile, it’s a long day’s journey from La Paz and there’s nowhere in the country capable of removing lithium from the brine it’s harvested in. It’s estimated that Bolivia has 50-100 million tons of metallic lithium, mostly in brine form.

Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries in South America; under the leadership of Evo Morales, Bolivia plans to nationalize the lithium industry and views the resources as under public ownership.

Recently there's been some heated controversy over whether the availability of lithium might put the pinch on battery production and viability or whether it's inconsequential. Some have recently argued that lithium is a trivial part of batteries and that we don’t even need to worry about lithium supply, and just earlier this week TheCarConnection.com reported that there's plenty of lithium to meet demand.

Only about 25 percent of the world’s lithium now goes toward batteries, but a typical lithium ion car battery would use about 11 pounds of lithium carbonate, according to the Bolivians—so the numbers could add up quickly. Up until now, lithium has mainly been used for medical purposes and aluminum-alloy metallurgy.

It’s estimated that the costs to industrialize it and build a plant capable of extracting lithium from the brine in the volumes needed will run in the range of $300-400 million. And the Bolivian government is planning to build the industry and infrastructure itself without looking outward to multi-national corporations or other countries.

A podcast is available on BBC’s site with the full report.

 
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