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.

Can North Carolina be a domestic source for lithium for electric vehicle batteries?

February 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Making transport fuel fungible with electricity offers options to net importers of oil such as the US.  As a state, North Carolina is in the unenviable position of importing all of its fuel from other states.  While biofuel will undoubtedly play a role in reducing this import, electrifying the fleet offers another avenue.  The primary mission of electric vehicles(EV’s) would be the reduction or elimination of tail pipe emissions, the notoriously most difficult site for carbon dioxide capture, although a secondary one may be to act as a storage medium for the grid.  The FRDM program, led by NC State University, targets creating all elements of a Smart Grid, which would be a key vehicle in grid optimization.  So, North Carolina is already well placed to take a lead in electrifying the passenger vehicle fleet.

EV’s such as GM’s Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV), the Volt, scheduled to be marketed in 2010, are intended to be charged in conventional electrical outlets, with a gasoline engine for charging the batteries if needed to go beyond the nominal range, 40 miles in the case of the Volt.  Pure EV’s, running solely on electricity, such as one scheduled by Nissan for limited entry in 2010, are also likely to be part of the equation.  If such vehicles are to become a substantial portion of the passenger vehicle fleet, several economic hurdles will have to be crossed, some possibly needing subsidies.  The principal of these is the expected higher cost of the vehicle (pure EV’s, because of their simplicity of design, will be somewhat lower in cost than PHEV’s), driven largely by the cost of the battery.  Research to reduce cost and increase range is ongoing in this and other countries, and the current administration has announced the intent to significantly fund this endeavor as part of the Stimulus Package.

Batteries: The Lithium Ion battery is the clear leader in this field and many believe it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  Other manner of sophistication, such as augmentation with super capacitors for short  bursts of power, is expected to reduce the load on the batteries.  However, the current unit costs are high, although high volume throughput has not yet been in place.  One can expect the costs to come down over time.  A point of note is that while the technology is domestic in many cases, all battery manufacture is currently in other low labor cost countries.  However, as in the case of foreign designed cars, domestic manufacture may become feasible.  Location of such capability in North Carolina would go hand in hand with any decision to make North Carolina a primary launch state for electric vehicles.

Lithium: A more pernicious issue is the sourcing of the critical commodity, Lithium.  World reserves are considerable, but the majority of these are in Latin America, including some countries such as Bolivia who are not in close alignment with the US.  There is the risk of trading foreign dependency of one commodity for another.  Unlike the battery manufacturing situation, a mineral is uniquely situated, as in the case oil.  North America does have sizeable reserves of lithium ore, in the form of spodumene, an oxide, but with current technology the processing costs are high when compared to the cost of processing the brine based deposits in other countries.  The vast majority of spodumene reserves in this country are in North Carolina, in an area northwest of Charlotte.

Call for Action: The technology for spodumene processing deemed non economic is at least half a century old.  Hints exist in the literature for more innovative methods.  In the national interest a research program should be instituted to investigate the possibility of economic recovery of Lithium from oxide ore.  RTEC has commenced a scoping exercise in this area, currently involving a literature search, but a fully fledged investigation will require State or Federal funding.

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