Does the United States Need Bolivia’s Lithium?

by Bill Chameides | February 19th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 5 comments

Demand for lithium is on the rise, thanks to its use in rechargable batteries for electronics, laptops, and even hybrid and plug-in cars. So where’s it going to come from?

President Obama has some ambitious goals. One would put a million plug-in electric vehicles on the road by 2015. That’s going to require a lot of batteries and, given today’s technology, a lot of lithium. Where’s it going to come from?

Lithium (from the Greek word for “stone”) is the third lightest element in the universe – right after hydrogen and helium. That makes it a perfect fit for a battery. Nickel, another metal used in batteries, is more than eight times heavier.

Today the lithium-ion combo is the battery of choice for everything from Blackberries and laptops to cars.

Up until the 1990s, lithium was used primarily in glass and ceramic manufacturing. Starting in the 1970s, scientists began to view it as a potential battery source. Between 2003 and 2007 the demand for lithium in batteries doubled, and in 2007 batteries grabbed 25 percent of the global lithium market (source [pdf]).

Estimates of just how much lithium the battery market might use annually range from 54,000 tons to 500,000 tons. Whichever number pans out, one thing is clear: given current global numbers of about 27,400 tons, lithium production will have to increase.

So where will it come from? The New York Times recently half supposed that with almost half of the world’s lithium, Bolivia might become the metal’s Saudi Arabia. Let’s look at some potential sources.

How Much Lithium Is There?

Despite being an abundant metal, economically viable deposits of lithium are not plentiful. According to the United States Geological Survey, the 410,000 tons of lithium in the United States pale next to Bolivia’s (5.4 million tons), Chile’s (3 million), and China’s (1.1 million).* But bear in mind the last major global assessment of lithium resources was conducted in the mid-70s.** (Interestingly, that research was done to ascertain whether supply was sufficient to meet the expected lithium demand of the nuclear fusion reactor fleet slated for deployment in 2000. Look how that panned out.)

Much has changed since the ‘70s. Most significantly, extraction from pools of highly saline water under the earth’s surface has become the dominant lithium source. According to USGS lithium specialist Brian Jaskula, the government’s numbers, based on the 1976 assessment, probably lowball global reserves – possibly significantly so. China recently estimated its own reserves at 3.35 million tons.

It’s not surprising that given these uncertainties, whether the resource will be adequate to meet global demand depends on whom you talk to (here’s a yes and a no). Given the growing demand for and probable strategic importance of lithium, a re-examination of global lithium resources would seem prudent.

So Where Might the Lithium Capital Be?

Chile, currently the king of lithium, produced about 12,000 tons in 2008 from brines buried in the Andes.

Prior to 1997, the United States was the global center of lithium mining. In 1979 we produced 2,900 tons annually. Today a single brine operation in Nevada, which produces an unknown proprietary amount of the metal, is the country’s only active lithium plant (source [pdf]).

Before Nevada’s lithium rein, North Carolina was the nation’s biggest producer. There, lithium is found primarily in spodumene, a mineral mined from igneous pegmatites near Charlotte. Miners produce lithium, an element that does not exist except in compound form, as a concentrate, which is further processed to make lithium carbonate, the form used in batteries. The Tar Heel State’s preeminence as a global lithium supplier ended with the discovery that brines were a lower-cost source. In 1998, shortly after Chilean brine operations slashed prices to gain market share, North Carolina’s lithium mining operations closed (source [pdf]).

The United States doesn’t currently produce much lithium, but it could. USGS figures put North Carolina’s lithium resource in the ballpark of 2.6 million tons. In Nevada some 243,000 tons of lithium lay buried in King’s Valley’s hectorite clays.

(In December, 14 U.S. companies, including 3M and MicroSun Technologies, teamed up with Argonne National Laboratory with the goal of building a U.S. manufacturing plant for lithium batteries. The recent stimulus package gave them $2 billion to work with.)

What About Costs?

Producing lithium from brines is currently more economically viable than from spodumene, at least in the United States. It’s too early to know how hectorite deposits will play out.

But even without the U.S. resource, a lithium shortfall big enough to limit the deployment of plug-ins or hybrids seems unlikely, especially if lithium-ion batteries end up being a bridge technology. Right now there’s a surplus of lithium on the market and South America’s brine operations are not producing even close to capacity.

Oh, and then there’s recycling. Whether or not you believe those reports that lithium might be in short supply (see here and here), recycling is a way to stretch what we already have. The lithium in used batteries is the same stuff they put in brand new ones. By making sure that every bit of lithium is re-captured and used again, we can keep the U.S. lithium secure even if there is a Chevy Volt or two in every garage.


* These numbers refer to the reserve base [pdf], defined by USGS as “the inplace demonstrated resource from which reserves are estimated.” (More on reserve base [pdf] et al. technical terms.)

** Lithium Resources and Requirements by the Year 2000, Professional Paper 1005, 1976

Additional Resources

Recycling info – Environmental Health and Safety Online

Recycling info – Earth911 –

Types of lithium deposits –

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  1. David Carpenter
    Nov 17, 2009

    I can tell you something is definitley going on in lincolnton n.c. The government has been sending geologist to the abandoned lithium mines around here, and getting samples and data. One of these mines is on my property, and they are getting samples now. It seems they are serious about this for now.

  2. Ken Grubb
    Aug 24, 2009

    Ecogeek cites at least five reasons why one should not fear lithium supply issues. 1. Lithium is a trivial part of the cost of a lithium-ion battery. 2. Lithium is not scarce. 3. Lithium is not used up inside of batteries. 4. Once the battery is built, commodity costs cease to matter. 5. Advanced batteries use less lithium.

  3. Ken Grubb
    Jul 13, 2009

    Great read, Dr. Chameides. Ultra capacitors hold a lot promise for plugin hybrid vehicles. Once the Cobasys patents expire in 2014, NiMH batteries might well see a resurgence. Lithium batteries have other competition, and a fear of Evo Morales should not prevent the electrification of transportation with more hybrids, better hybrids, plugin hybrids and electric vehicles.

  4. Lisa
    Jul 10, 2009

    Does Western Lithium’s 43-101 resource calculation on just one of its five lenses in Nevada change your view about a cost effective domestic supply of lithium?

    • Bill Chameides
      Jul 13, 2009

      Lisa, it does not. Western Lithium believes it has a substantial find, but time will tell whether this resource can be cost competitive with South American and Chinese sources.

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