As the modern world rushes to replace ICE cars with EVs there is a big problem facing EV proponents that not everyone has yet come to terms with.
The available supplies of lithium are concentrated in three areas around the globe. China, Australia and South America.
First, you can discount China exporting lithium, because President Xi and the CCP has already announced China will not share its lithium supplies with the world!
This ramps up pressure to mine lithium from Australia and South America. You may think that the relative scarcity of lithium relegates it to the status of ‘the new oil’ – given that it’s a vital resource for the manufacture of EV batteries, as well as many other products like smartphones and x-ray machines, as well as in the production of glass and concrete.
However, the issue is that lithium is not only expensive to mine, but also totally degrades the landscape left behind. Also, whilst the current reserves may sound like a lot of lithium, it is a finite resource, just like oil.
In South America, lithium comes from ‘The Lithium Triangle’ – an area about the size of California, spanning the borders of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.
The valuable resource is a brine, which sits below the surface of salt flats in places like Chile’s Atacama desert.
It has to be pumped to the surface, then stored in ponds to evaporate.
As many as 2,800 cubic meters of water are needed to make a ton of lithium in Chile; that's about 40 times the water required to make a ton of copper. Note that Chile is the world’s largest copper supplier. Once the salty brine has evaporated, it’s collected to be processed – and the mined areas take on the appearance of a moonscape.
In Australia lithium is mined from hard rock, but once extracted the pits also look like a moonscape.
The next problem facing the South American companies is two-fold. First, there is a huge groundswell of protest from governments and indigenous peoples, not only because of the degradation of the landscape and possible poisoning of the arterial water supply – but, more importantly, the three national governments are extremely concerned about huge mining companies gaining mining contracts and retaining the bulk of the profits, which will not benefit the local communities.
Bolivia decided, in 2018, to nationalize lithium, and both mine and process it themselves, cutting out the mining companies. The problem is Bolivia simply doesn’t have the financial resources for to develop new mines, nor the required expertise to extract the lithium and process it profitably. The first mine, established in 2019, remains idle. Another obstacle is that a new mine takes about eight years to set up.
Australia currently leads in mining and exports of lithium, but again, the process depends on mining companies – who want a big cut of the profits.
Oh, and there’s another consideration – if you own an EV, and prefer to keep driving it, what impact will the falling availability of lithium have on the manufacture of replacement batteries? They’re gonna cost – big time.
As I have pointed out many times before. Lithium like oil and gold, is a finite resource and once you’ve mined it, you can’t extract any more supplies from that source.
This whole scenario has not been thought through very well. The idea is a glamorous one for governments, environmentalists and car companies, but it seems to me there are some serious practical barriers to BEVs becoming the ‘silver bullet’ to replace ICE cars and totally reduce vehicle emissions.
All thoughts on the way out of this dilemma are welcome.
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