Bolivia, Lithium, and Electric Vehicles

The Obama administration has set a goal of Deploying one million electric vehicles by 2015—a benchmark that is largely dependent on the ability to commercialize new battery technologies that are lighter, cheaper, and perform better than current technologies on the market. The most promising technologies to meet these requirements rely on lithium-ion composites, and as a result, a debate over the demand and supply for lithium has begun. Between 2003 and 2007, the battery industry more than doubled its consumption of lithium carbonate—the main ingredient in lithium-based products such as batteries for portable electronics [1]. The development and future prospects for lithium-ion batteries for electric cars, which require much larger quantities of lithium carbonate than smaller batteries, has raised global interest in lithium extraction as an important factor in projection the future cost of the new technologies. A 2008 report by Meridian International Research suggests that “to make 60 million plug-in hybrid vehicles would require…six times the current global production” of lithium carbonate [2]. In order to meet the forecasted demand in electric and hybrid vehicle production, new sources of lithium carbonate will need to be brought online.

This demand has led to a surge in interest in identifying lithium reserves and expanding production. As a result, numerous claims have been made in the last two years in countries such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, and Canada. Chile is currently the world’s largest supplier of lithium (8,800 tonnes in 2011) and holds the largest estimated resource potential (7.5 million tonnes) of any currently producing country [3]. However, across the border in Bolivia an even greater lithium resource remains unutilized. With estimated reserves of 10.2 million tonnes (MT), Bolivia’s lithium resources represent over one forth of the global in-place-resource [4]. The majority of the resource is concentrated in the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat), which is the world’s largest lithium deposit and contains over 40 percent of the global resource for lithium from brines. Currently, no production of the resources has commences, largely due to the hostility of Bolivia’s government to foreign investment.

Three things are abundantly clear from this situation. First, electric vehicle technologies will continue to be—despite their “green” and “eco-friendly” reputation—dependent on extractive resource commodities that have serious environmental concerns. Lithium is a commodity that is highly in demand, but that’s extractive processes may require disrupting sensitive ecosystems in places such as the Bolivian Altiplano. Second, it is unclear if exiting supply chains are sufficient to meet the current demand for lithium carbonate. Price shocks are possible since the location with the greatest resource potential are currently off the market and unavailable to foreign investment. Third, there is significant potential for countries such as Bolivia and Chile to capitalize on their possession of large quantities of global lithium supplies. For countries such as Bolivia that are in dire need of economic stimulus, the potential for gains is large. Managing these resources will the greatest task these countries face in the coming decades.

[1] Roskill Information Services, (2007). Available: http://www.roskill.com/reports/lithium

[2] Tahil, W., 2008. The Trouble with Lithium 2: Under the Microscope. Meridian International Research. Available: http://www.evworld.com/library/WTahil_Lithium_Microscope.pdf.

[3] U.S. Geological Survey (2011). Mineral Commodities Summary, Available: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/mcs-2011-lithi.pdf

[4] Gruber, P. W., Medina, P. A., Keoleian, G. A., Kesler, S. E., Everson, M. P. and Wallington, T. J. (2011), Global Lithium Availability. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 15: 760–775.

 

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2 responses to “Bolivia, Lithium, and Electric Vehicles

  1. Pingback: Bolivia, Lithium, and Electric Vehicles | Energy, Technology, & Policy | Electric Vehicles

  2. I really appreciate your blog post! I just want to look into the price history and an assessment of projected growth rates of Lithium in detail. Lithium prices are determined by negotiation between producers and customers since there is no official trading market for lithium chemicals. According to Roskill, prices of lithium carbonate were within US$4,000/t in the early 1990s. However, prices of lithium carbonate prices fell to US$1,600/t after one of the Chile’s companies, SQM, entered the market and adopted an aggressive pricing strategy in 1996. This low price made FMC suspend the production at its Salar del Hombre Muerto operation. Prices started to rise again in 2004 as consumption increased, which made FMC restart production at Salar del Hombre Muerto. In 2005, continued growth in demand resulted in aggressive price increases for lithium chemicals in China until 2008, when new producers entered the market and Chinese prices flattened. However, in October 2009 SQM announced a 20% reduction in lithium chemical prices on renewal of its existing contracts. At the same time, FMC announced a 7% to 8% price increase for its butyl lithium products. Prices vary by exact product and contract.
    According to Roskill, the global production of lithium increased from approximately 13,050 tonnes in 2000 to approximately 22,800 tonnes in 2008, and fell approximately to 18,786 tonnes in 2009.
    Roskill shows that the total consumption of lithium in 2009 was 18,786 tonnes and the annual average growth rate for lithium demand is 5.5% between 2000 and 2009. One of factors that made this steady growth is the significant expansion of the rechargeable battery market. Lithium demand decreased by approximately 15% due to general weakness in the industrial sectors of the market during the global economic crisis of 2009. As time passes, demand is expected to increase at the rate of 6.4% per year until 2020, based on current applications. If battery application growth accelerates, demand could make an increase in growth rate of 9.5% per year. Based on this, I totally agree with your statement that managing these resources is so imperative to sustain their economics because the characteristic of Lithium market is volatile and fragile and the demand of this is increasing with EV technology development.

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