Afghani Lithium: Much Ado About Perhaps Little

June 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Afghanis should rejoice that people are discussing Afghani lithium, not opium.  But, based solely on the popularly reported data, initially by the NY Times, there is little reason for celebration.

The original Times story was largely about the mineral finds in general.  An Afghani economy strongly dependent on opium should welcome diversification into minerals.  But the subsequent stories underlined the lithium, including quoting the Pentagon as referring to Afghanistan as the Saudi Arabia of Lithium.  Hyperbole has an honored place in selling copy, and often has a basis in fact.  We went looking for it.  Here is what we found.

The bulk of the underlying data are at least three years old.  The current release by the Pentagon, including General Petraeus’ use of the word “stunning”, is clearly tactical.  The lithium is found as an ore (mixture of oxides) as well as in salt or brine deposits.  We were unable to find the relative distribution of these.  The importance of this is that the cost of extraction from the ore is two to three times more than from brine.  This despite the fact that the ore has more of the stuff, up to 7.5%, compared to a fraction of a percent in brine.  The economic fact renders most ores impractical at this time, even if easily accessible, which this one might not be.  For example, the US imports the vast majority of lithium it uses, despite substantial domestic ore deposits, most of which are in my home state of North Carolina.  The domestic production, such as there is, is from brines.  Lithium from ore is commercially attractive only if there is collateral production of other values, such as potash.  A breakthrough in smelting technology could change all that.  None is known to be in the offing.

Lithium salt deposits are either brine (salty solutions) in lakes, or associated crystalline salt formed from natural evaporation.  These chlorides are relatively easily reacted with soda ash to make lithium carbonate.  This then is the marketed commodity from which all else is made, including metallic lithium.  The reported values of lithium content of Afghani brine is roughly .028%.  This is at the lower end of commercial concentrations.  In other words good, but not great.

Why, then, was lithium singled out from the mineral mix in the story?  It is the key ingredient in batteries for electronic devices today, and for electric vehicle batteries for at least the next twenty years.  All electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf will use over 30 Kg of lithium carbonate per vehicle (Hybrids such as the Prius use a tenth of that).  The vast majority of lithium brine deposits are in South America, with nearly half of that in Bolivia.  There is concern about trading oil dependency for lithium dependency.  The questionable stability of the sources is a factor.  This is why a vast new source is seen as news.

Based on the data revealed to date this is much ado about possibly very little.


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