The Future of Lithium

Stephen DeAngelis

June 11, 2010

You can hardly go anywhere without seeing someone with a mobile phone. Like so many other products, those phones are powered by lithium ion batteries. Lithium batteries can be extremely efficient, with some companies claiming their batteries offer over 98 percent efficiency. Lithium batteries also have achieved the world’s highest energy density output per mass. There are drawbacks, however. One of the benefits of lithium batteries (the ability to pack a lot of energy in a small space) is one of those drawbacks when it comes to child safety [“For Very Young, Peril Lurks in Lithium Cell Batteries,” by Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times, 1 June 2010]. Parker-Pope begins her article with the story of a young 13-month-old child who swallowed a small button-sized lithium battery. The boy soon lost his appetite and began vomiting. Doctors eventually discovered the battery lodged in the boy’s esophagus and removed it. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. The “battery’s current had set off a chemical reaction in the child’s esophagus, burning through both the esophageal wall and attacking the aorta. Two days after the battery was removed, [the boy] began coughing blood, and soon died from his injuries.” Parker-Pope reports that about 3,500 small lithium batteries are swallowed each year.

 

Another lithium battery drawback is the heat they produce. You might remember a while back when Sony had to recall its laptop batteries because a number of them had caught on fire. Scientists are working on that problem [“Researchers offer hope of solving Lithium battery safety problems,” by Ben Coxworth, Gizmag, 20 May 2010]. Coxworth explains the problem:

“The reason lithium-ion batteries do catch fire involves tiny lithium particles that form fibers known as dendrites. Over several charge/discharge cycles, these dendrites can accumulate on the battery’s carbon anodes. Once that happens, short circuits can occur, resulting in rapid overheating and combustion.”

While some researchers are working on the safety issues, others are working to make lithium batteries even more powerful and faster charging. Although you’re not going to see it anytime soon in your cell phone, “lithium-air battery technology looks to have a big future” [“Lithium-air batteries offer three times the energy density,” by Darren Quick, Gizmag, 5 April 2010]. Quick reports:

“With the potential of providing energy densities up to three times that of the conventional lithium-ion batteries found in just about every portable consumer electronics device going around (not to mention the incoming wave of electric vehicles), many companies, including IBM and General Motors are pursuing work on lithium-air batteries. Now researchers at MIT have made a breakthrough that could help make the commercial development of lightweight rechargeable batteries a reality. Lithium-air (also known as lithium-oxygen) batteries are similar in principle to lithium-ion batteries. However, lithium-air batteries electrochemically couple a lithium anode to atmospheric oxygen through a carbon-based air cathode instead of the heavy conventional compounds found in lithium-ion batteries. This means they are able to have higher energy density because of the lighter cathode and the fact that oxygen is freely available in the environment and doesn’t need to be stored in the battery. Unfortunately lithium-air batteries haven’t become a commercial reality because there has been a lack of understanding of what kinds of electrode materials could promote the electrochemical reactions that take place in these batteries. Now a new study out of MIT reports that electrodes with gold or platinum as a catalyst show a much higher level of activity and thus a higher efficiency than simple carbon electrodes in these batteries.”

Impressive as that work is, other MIT researchers have made even bigger claims [“Lithium Ion Battery breakthrough promises 100-fold boost in performance,” by Paul Evans, Gizmag, 16 March 2009]. Evans reports:

“Researchers have developed a new advanced Lithium Ion battery that will allow mobile phone and laptop computers to be fully charged in seconds. Electric car batteries may be charged in as little as five minutes, removing one of the main barriers to wider uptake of EVs. Solar and wind power generation could also benefit as better batteries could be used to store surplus energy. MIT researchers Byoungwoo Kang & Gerbrand Ceder have discovered a way to make a lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery charge and discharge about as fast as a supercapacitor. In a typical lithium ion cell when a current is applied to charge the cell, lithium ions move away from the cathode compound and are trapped at the anode storage medium. When the battery discharges producing current, those ions travel back to the cathode medium and in so doing produce current flow. Speed of charging in typical lithium-ion cells is slowed by virtue of the fact that it takes time for the lithium ion to move off the cathode material. Various techniques have been tried to increase that speed including the nanoparticle doping strategy that A123 Systems uses. The scientists noted that lithium iron phosphate forms a lattice that creates small tunnels through which the lithium ions flow, but that although the cathode seemed ideal it still took some time for those ions to travel. The novel solution they devised was to create a lithium phosphate glassy surface to coat these tunnels. This glassy surface acts as a speedway that rapidly transports the lithium ions on and off the cathode.”

MIT researchers are not the only ones claiming breakthroughs or experimenting with different materials to partner with lithium [“Lithium-sulfur batteries could store triple the power of lithium-ion,” by Dario Borghino, Gizmag, 11 June 2009]. Borghino reports:

“A research team from the University of Waterloo has synthesized a prototype of a lithium-sulphur rechargeable battery that, thanks to its peculiar nanoscale structure, can store three times the power of a conventional lithium-ion battery in the same volume while being significantly lighter and potentially cheaper to manufacture. When it comes to reducing our carbon footprint, a clean, long-lasting rechargeable battery could have enormous benefits in a wide range of applications, from efficient energy storage to clean transportation.”

Batteries that are more powerful and cheaper sound like winners; however, Borghino reports “that because lithium-sulfur batteries typically employ a negative electrode comprised of metallic lithium, there could be safety concerns if the electrode is not adequately protected by a passivating layer.” In other words, research is continuing. The one thing that all of these batteries have in common is lithium. That is why the chase for new sources of lithium is on [“The Lithium Chase,” by Clifford Krauss, New York Times, 9 March 2010]. Krauss reports:

“For many years, few metals drew bigger yawns from mining executives than lithium, a lightweight element long associated mostly with mood-stabilizing drugs. Suddenly, the yawns are being replaced by eurekas. As awareness spreads that lithium is a crucial ingredient for hybrid and electric cars, a global hunt is under way for new supplies of the metal. Toyota Tsusho, the material supplier for the big Japanese automaker, announced a joint venture in January with the Australian miner Orocobre to develop a $100 million lithium project in Argentina. That deal came only days after Magna International, the Canadian car parts company that is helping develop a battery-powered version of the Ford Focus, announced that it was investing $10 million in a small Canadian lithium firm that also has projects in Argentina. They were the latest in a series of deals and projects announced over the last year, reflecting a new urgency among companies to assure themselves future supplies of the metal. … About 60 mining companies have begun feasibility studies in Argentina, Serbia and Nevada that could lead to more than $1 billion in new lithium projects in the next several years, while dozens of smaller projects are being proposed in China, Finland, Mexico and Canada.”

The companies racing to develop sources of lithium are betting that electric and hybrid vehicles have a very bright future. But Krauss cautions the future of electric and hybrid vehicles remains “an open question since batteries remain expensive, recharging stations need to be developed, and consumer taste for cars that depend on regular stops at electric outlets remains untested.” He reports that “the four biggest current producers, which mine and otherwise gather lithium in Chile, Argentina and Australia, say they are planning to expand long-running projects as future demand warrants.” To this point, Krauss has failed to mention the one country that hopes to benefit most from a boost in lithium usage: Bolivia. Bolivia is home to nearly half of the world’s lithium reserves. Krauss explains that Bolivia receives less attention than it apparently should because it “is a remote, unstable country often hostile to foreign investment.” However, Interest in Bolivian reserves could be growing [“Bolivia’s salt flat stores battery power for world,” by Naomi Mapstone, Financial Times, 22 May 2010]. Mapstone reports:

“From outer space, Bolivia’s vast Salar de Uyuni is a pale blue comma in the squiggly brown sentence that is the Andes, big enough for scientists to use to calibrate satellite instruments. Up close, the 10,000 sq km high-altitude salt flat is a dazzling expanse broken only by the distant horizon, flocks of pink flamingos and ant-like four-wheel-drive convoys of camera-wielding tourists. The Salar’s appeal for Evo Morales, Bolivia’s leftist president, is not so much its other-worldly beauty as its potential riches, however. More than half the world’s supply of lithium – crucial to making batteries for iPods, mobile phones and electric cars – is suspended in a sea of brine beneath the Salar’s crust.”

Mapstone, like Krauss, notes that there is an “industry skepticism about Bolivia’s ability to commercialize lithium.” Bolivians are keenly aware that theirs is a history of being plundered, especially by foreigners seeking silver. Angst over this history is what allowed Evo Morales to rise to power. “Lithium,” however, “is seen by government as a clean slate.” The question is: what does starting with a clean slate mean? Bolivian officials predict that the country will “produce 20,000-30,000 tons of lithium carbonate a year by 2014.” Some analysts believe that prediction is optimistic considering “the Salar’s extreme isolation and lack of infrastructure.” Mapstone also notes that “competition for water in the region is already fierce” and mining activities would only exacerbate the problem. If the demand for lithium outstrips supply, however, many people believe that Bolivian reserves will become very valuable. How valuable? Mapstone reports that it will depend on a lot of things. Right now demand is low because the world “is swimming in lithium.” She continues:

“Given that producers in Chile, Argentina, China and the US can ramp up production with relative ease, many analysts question Bolivia’s capacity to enter the market so quickly. SQM, of Chile, the world’s biggest supplier, dropped prices 20 per cent last October to stimulate demand. … No one yet knows the cost of extracting lithium from the alphabet soup of minerals in the Salar de Uyuni. Its ratio of magnesium to lithium – 30:1 units against 6.5:1 in Chile’s Atacama desert – could put extraction costs at about $5,000 a ton, compared with $1,500 in Chile, Mr Hykawy says. Industrial-grade lithium in hydroxide form currently trades for about $4,000 a ton of lithium carbonate equivalent. Nonetheless, Bolivia, with 5.4m tons in unproven reserves, remains the fattest prize for hungry foreign suitors who are undeterred by Mr Morales’s nationalization tendencies.”

The biggest reason that analysts believe Bolivia is going to remain a minor player in the lithium trade, despite its reserves, is because the government has turned away potential partners and is determined to “go alone on this. Mapstone continues:

“While the government has ruled out private investment in producing lithium carbonate, Mr Morales has left the door open to alliances for value-added products in which the government retains a 60 per cent stake. Potential partners that have been in talks with the government include Bolloré Group of France, LG of South Korea, and Sumitomo and Mitsubishi of Japan. Any partner would be required to build a plant to make lithium battery-powered cars.”

Even the head of the lithium project for state’s mining agency, Comibol, has doubts about the future of Bolivia’s lithium production. He argues that “the Salar’s ample stores of humble potassium chloride, a fertilizer that sells for about $500 a ton, have far greater economic significance” for Bolivia’s future. “Potassium has a lower price [than lithium] but the volume is huge. Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay are looking for it in very, very huge quantities,” Roelants du Vivier says. My advice to Bolivia is to take the long view. Figure out a way to sell the potassium in the short term and wait for the demand for lithium to outstrip its supply in the long term. In the interim, researchers may figure out how to extract the lithium at a more competitive rate. Right now the future for lithium batteries continues to look promising and waiting a decade or so to reap the rewards of that future could pay big dividends.