Dornadula Chandrasekharam
Former Chair Professor I I T Bombay, India

Who will power the world

“Batteries recently scored a win at General Motors Co., which said it hoped to phase out gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles from its showrooms worldwide by 2035,” wrote Russell Gold and Ben Foldy in The Wall Street Journal on 5th February 2021 (The Battery is Ready to Power the World). “While mining materials and manufacturing batteries produce some greenhouse gas emissions, analysts believe shifting to batteries in the auto and energy sectors would reduce emissions overall, boosting efforts to tackle climate change” comment the authors. That shows their poor knowledge about the extraction process of Li to manufacture Li batteries. I don’t blame them. That is their depth of knowledge.  This world cannot live with-out coal or oil (Can the world survive without coal, Times of Israel Blogs, Sep. 9, 2020). To bring Li ore to a battery stage we need oil/gas/coal. The journalist shouldn’t discuss emissions and they should confine their discussions on energy sources. Emissions will remain-whether the world switches to EVs or fossil fuels-based vehicles. Emissions from solar PV or Li-batteries life cycle are similar to emissions from fossil fuels based power plants (Chandrasekharam, D. and Ranjith Pathegama, G. 2020. CO2 emissions from renewables: Solar PV, hydrothermal and EGS sources. J. Geomecha. Geophys. Geoenergy Georesour. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40948-019-00135-y).

After solar PV cells, Lithium (Li) is in the limelight. Li batteries are extensively used in almost all electronic devices to store energy. Now they are on the news front in support of Electrical Vehicles (EVs). Whether it is a solar PV cell or a Li battery, the raw material comes from rocks and minerals. While quartz is the raw material for solar PV cells, pegmatites and brines are the raw materials for Li. Both the raw materials have to undergo an extensive, energy-intensive process to arrive at the end product. I have already discussed the life cycle of solar PV cells and associated emissions.  Similar is the case with the manufacturing of Li-battery. The emissions and energy consumed are more or less similar in both cases. Many pundits are ignorant of these facts and believe that both solar PV cell and Li battery occur in nature “like an apple in a tree” that can be plucked and used!!.  So it is better to name solar PV cells and Li batteries as energy sources and not as “green” and “environmentally friendly” energy sources, unlike geothermal energy sources. It is a misnomer. Lithium occurs as LiAl2O6 (Spodumene) and LiAlSi4O10 (Petalite) in nature as minerals. Li has to be extracted from these minerals by metallurgical and electrochemical processes (first converting into Li-Carbonate)   to manufacture Li-batteries. These minerals occur in granitic pegmatites that are distributed over wide geographic locations/regions of the world.  The most important Li reserves are shown below. The Li reserves in Chile, China (Qinghai–Tibet) and  Argentina are located in “salars” (sabkhas/playas/salt pans) brines while other Li reserves are in pegmatites.

Reserves Metric tons
Chile 75,00,000
China 33,00,000
Australia 15,00,000
Argentina 8,50,000
DRC 3,30,000
Portugal 60,000
Brazil 48,000
USA 3,80,000
Russia 2,10,000

 

Next to pegmatites, brines are the most promising hosts for Li. They are called “salars” distributed over wide geographic locations. The largest salars are found in South America, occupying an area of 400 000 km2 falling within the territories of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. These salars deposits extend to greater depths and surface and shallow bore-hole based estimates reveal that the Li reserves in the salars vary from 6.3 to 100 Mt. Li bearing brines are also located in Qinghai–Tibet plateau. The Qaidam Basin (Qinghai–Tibet ) contains Li-rich lakes and sediments and the estimated Li resources are about 3.3 Mt. There is a possibility of locating Li-rich sediments in the great Himalayan lakes, like the Pangong Tso. Solar ponds are in use to concentrate Li in the brines before extraction.  To manufacture Li-batteries, Li has to be extracted from the ore/minerals/brines and converted to Li-carbonate. Li-Carbonate is used to manufacture Li-batteries after extracting Li. Approximately to extract 1 ton of  Li metals nearly 5 to 6 tons of Li-Carbonate is required.

According to USGS, world production of lithium ore in 2017 is: Australia: 18 7000 tons; Chile: 14100; Argentina 5500; China 3000; Zimbabwe: 1000; Portugal: 400; Brazil 200.  Although China has a large reserve of lithium ore, it is not producing much. It may use it after the world production shows a decline.

Although China is not a leader in Li deposits, it is capturing countries rich in Li reserves. China (Tianqi- Chinese mining giant) has virtually captured SQM company (Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile S.A) that is producing Li in Chile (Puna Plateau in Atacama) and Tianqi has a 51% stake in Australia’s Greenbushes lithium mines. Today the world is looking at salars in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. But salars are developing in the present-day geological period also. Take, for example, the entire coastal track of Gulf countries. The sabkhas contain 0.31 ppm of Li, according to a USGS report. The sediments of the Tethyan Sea host several (Neo-Tethyan) economic deposits including Li, like those located in Tunisia. Thus, the Himalayan region, the loci of Tethyan deposits should contain Li-borate deposits.  While the gulf countries being rich oil-bearing countries, in the future they may too become the richest countries in Li resources. So the energy cycle centers around oil-rich countries.

Although “The Battery is Ready to Power the World”  as reported by the  Wall Street Journal, it is too early to predict what is in the future in  2035. To replace oil and coal, these reserves should show a decline. Until then all other energy sources will be on the shelves to be used at the appropriate time. Debates related to emissions reductions using green energy sources like solar PV and Li batteries by IPCCC and CoP will continue. These debates are not focused on energy sources. They have larger game plans and mandate, focused on the economic development of developing economies. One has to be smart like China, which has foreseen the future and bought the future energy companies around the world. Unless Australia and SQM redraft their business MoUs, China will rule the world and not the Battery. But the question is will the world Li reserves support the ambition plans of supporting expansion of Evs  like petrol/diesel supported vehicles. When the reserves decline the cost should escalate due to rise in demand and production cost.

The cost of lithium carbonate was US$ 12000 a ton in 2019. This cost will not decrease in the future and if that is so, how EVs can be sold cheap? Like solar PV, governments have to support cost reduction by giving subsidies. It is predicted that during the next decade Li will rule the world (like coal and oil/gas).  Besides EVs, Li is required for storing energy from solar pv.  Looking at the reserves and demand of  Li per battery, the supply deficit will start from 2023.  Bloomberg predicts that by 2040, 57% of EVs sales will be reached. All are predictions. But the truth will be revealed in a decade. The average capacity of Li-battery is  65 kWh/vehicle. A minimum of 10 kg of Li is required per battery (each battery contains about 5000 cells). Say for about 100,000 such batteries  1 million Kg of Li is required. The average life of the battery is 2 to 3 years. Considering the available Li reserves and projected EVs numbers in the next decade, I am not sure whether these projections have any meaning.

About the Author
I am a Retired chair professor from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and currently teach at IIT Hyderabad. I have 200 publications in the above fields and have supervised 25 Ph D students.
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