The Daily Energy Report for Friday April 16, 2010 features an interview with Yaron Vorona, Executive Director of the Lithium Alliance. Yaron talks to us about the importance of lithium in the U.S. energy discussion.
Yaron Vorona: The Lithium Alliance is the focal point of the lithium industry. Our role is connect producers, consumers of lithium with the general public and government and to really increase the amount of conversation about lithium. Our mission is to educate the public on lithium and to be the voice of the lithium industry.
Where can one get access to lithium?
Yaron Vorona: There are currently three ways to get lithium. Lithium can be produced from continental brines. There are some more that I can deal with, but the main source right now is continental brines which are basically big pools of saltwater. There are minerals sources which are produced through mining techniques. And there are hectorite clays in Nevada which are kind of a mixture between minerals and brines. Essentially, you’ve got clays that you dry, crush and then process to produce lithium. There are other places. Oil-filled brines amongst others. But the majority of today’s lithium is produced from continental brines in South America. The sources of lithium include a lot of the continents. You’ve got the U.S. and Canada have sources of lithium. There’s lithium in South America and Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil. There’s lithium in Australia, in China, in Serbia, and a new mineral by Rio Tinto called yadarite. Lots of different places to find lithium. What’s interesting today, I think it’s forty, forty0one percent of lithium is produced in Chile from continental brines. The only producers of lithium today are China and Chile, Australia, and the U.S.. But there are a lot of projects coming online.
Lithium is used in a variety of technologies today. The most amount of presses about batteries. Batteries only make up twenty-five percent of today’s demand. It’s also used in lubricating greases. It’s used in aluminum alloys. It makes aluminum lighter and stronger. It’s used in the manufacture of ceramics and glass. Essentially, including a bit of lithium in that process reduces the flux temperature, makes it a lot more energy efficient to produce ceramics and glass. The largest cost component in glass and ceramics are the energy input. Any savings that you can make on that has a big impact on the cost as well as the environmental footprint of them. So a wide variety of applications. But really the growth for the future will very likely come from lithium-ion batteries and other lithium-based battery technologies.
I think you’ll also see some growth in aluminum allows and other metal alloys, particularly in aerospace, as it reduces the weight, thus you get significant fuel savings. And, of course, the growth in the ceramics and glass industry.
Lithium-ion batteries have been gaining more popularity recently. Why is this?
Yaron Vorona: So there are a number competing battery technologies, and all of them have their place. We’re talking about lithium-ion batteries, we’re talking about secondary batteries or rechargeable batteries, as they’re more commonly known. Lithium batteries are also primary batteries. A lot of batteries that are produced that are not rechargeable are lithium as well. But really what we’re talking about are rechargeable batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are unique as opposed to, for example, nickel metal hydride or zinc air. Lithium-ion or lithium-ion polymer, there are a bunch of lithium-based technologies that will go beyond just lithium-ion. Makes them unique is lithium is such a small metal. It’s the least dense metal on the periodic table. If you remember your periodic table, you’ve got hydrogen, helium, and then lithium. So it’s really lightweight. And so what you’re able to do is create batteries that are more charge-dense and power-dense. In the technical terms, they have more charge density, more power density, which means that they can be lighter. And when you’re talking about applications like the battery for this camera in front of me, you’re talking about the batteries in your car, getting a lightweight battery is really critical to the feasibility of that technology. That’s why there’s so much press about lithium-ion batteries and lithium-technology batteries in general.
There’s no trouble with lithium. There’s lots of it. Lithium is not rare. There are lithium in seawater and all over in continental crust. When you talk about lithium production, you can’t produce it from them because they’re very difficult to extract. You want really an inexpensive sources. The resources in Chile, the U.S., China, Australia, Europe, Canada are really sufficient to take care of our lithium requirements for a very long time.
When you then factor in recycling, I showed today at the TREM Conference a slide that shows the effect of recycling. You know, the battery technology, the take up on lithium starts to ramp up. A few years later, you also get the ramp up following it of the availability of recyclable material. So you’ve got the batteries increasing on the graph. You’ve got recyclable material increasing. And so your net requirement for virgin or a primary source of raw materials start drop off because of recycling.
What’s interesting with regards to lithium as opposed to, we talk about oil being a very strategic and important commodity is, if we ran out of oil, the next day cars would stop. If we ran out of lithium which is not something that’s bound to happen, the cars will continue to run for a really long time. You’ve got a lead time to develop other technologies. But with recycling, I doubt that would be necessary for a very, very long time..