Lithium Battery Industry Keeps Going, And Going ...

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:17 pm

If you open up your mobile phone or laptop or iPad, you'll find a lithium battery. If you own a hybrid or electric car, it's likely powered by a lithium battery as well. Lithium is a metal that's light and cheap, and it is increasingly the material of choice for battery makers.

Lithium could, in the future, replace a lot of the oil we now use for energy — which raises questions about how much we can realistically rely on the metal. Seth Fletcher, senior editor at Popular Science, explores this in a new book, called Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy.

Lithium Logistics

"You have to store metallic lithium in oil, otherwise it tarnishes," Fletcher explains to NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Actually, it's so volatile it doesn't exist in nature in its pure form. So if you're mining for lithium, you never find big arm-sized veins of lithium metal because they just don't exist."

Most of the world's lithium, Fletcher says, comes from a series of salt lakes in a high-altitude region where Bolivia, Chile and Argentina meet. It's called the "lithium triangle."

"Over the years, the water has absorbed minerals and settled in these giant salt sponges, and now there's this rich brine," he says.

When the water evaporates, it leaves behind an olive oil-like substance that has a small percentage of lithium, which is then processed into lithium carbonate, a white powder. And according to Fletcher, there's more than enough to meet the rising demand.

"I don't know of any serious person in the automotive industry or in the lithium industry who believed that there is a serious, long-term supply problem," he says. "In fact, for the next 10 years there will probably be an oversupply of lithium because so many companies have now moved into the market."

And unlike the impact of mining other natural resources, concentrating lithium is an "environmentally benign" process, Fletcher says. "It's about as low-impact as mining can get. They're really just pumping water up ... and there are really no toxic chemicals in a lithium-ion battery."

'A Gaping Hole In The Grid'

Using lithium batteries can also boost the efficiency of how we store energy — say, from a wind farm or a bank of solar cells, Fletcher says.

"What a lot of companies are working on right now is building gigantic banks of lithium-ion batteries that can store energy from power plants," he says. "Right now we don't store energy effectively at all. That's a big gaping hole in the grid right now."

A limiting factor to the batteries, however, is the amount they can store and how quickly they can be recharged. While companies work to produce better lithium batteries, Fletcher argues, people should take advantage of the current uses.

"Batteries are going to get better, but we don't have a battery that can power a car for 500 miles and then recharge in 15 minutes," he says. "It's going to be a long time before we have that battery, but the batteries we do have right now can do a lot of incredibly useful things, and they can do them very efficiently and affordably. I think we would be wise to use them to do those things while we're simultaneously developing future chemistries that maybe could power a car 500 miles and recharge in 15 minutes."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, let's talk about a non-nuclear substance that is powering more and more of the world's economy. It's a metal called lithium, which powers many batteries. Lithium runs many a mobile phone, laptop or tablet reader, and it also powers many electric cars. It's in demand because it works, it's light and it's relatively cheap. If those cars become more common, we'll become more dependent on a steady supply of lithium.

So we called Seth Fletcher, author of a book on batteries called "Bottled Lightning," who's seen where much of the world's lithium comes from.

Mr. SETH FLETCHER (Senior Editor, Popular Science; Author, "Bottled Lightning"): It's a soft metal. It's like the consistency of brie cheese. It's silvery. Actually, you have to store metallic lithium in oil. And actually, if you just throw it in water, it reacts. It's actually so volatile that it doesn't exist in nature in its pure form. So if you're mining for lithium, you never find sort of big, arm-sized veins of lithium metal, because they just don't exist.

INSKEEP: So where does the lithium come from?

Mr. FLETCHER: Most of it right now comes from South America. There's this -the so-called lithium triangle is in this high-altitude desert region in the Andes. It's where Bolivia, Chile and Argentina meet, this beautiful, desolate area, and there are a series of dried-up, ancient salt lakes. And over the years, water has absorbed minerals and settled in these giant salt sponges, and now there's this rich brine.

And so companies just basically take it and pipe it into these pools, leave it to evaporate until it concentrates, and then when it's about six percent lithium, it's this olive oil-like substance, kind of glows chartreuse green. They just pipe it into tanker trucks, haul it down to the Pacific coast and process it into lithium carbonate, which is this white powder.

INSKEEP: Is there enough lithium? I mean, if you think in terms of millions of cars instead of thousands of cars powered by these batteries, is there enough to go around?

Mr. FLETCHER: Yeah. For the foreseeable future, there is plenty to go around. In fact, for the next 10 years, there will probably be an oversupply of lithium, because so many companies have now moved into the market.

INSKEEP: Here's another question about lithium: Is it really good for the environment, all the way through the process, including the mining process at the beginning?

Mr. FLETCHER: It's about as low-impact as mining can get. You know, I went down to Chile to see these - and Bolivia to see the place, but Chile is really where the main operations are. They really just are pumping water up. They build these pools out of salt. They just bulldoze salt dams, lay down plastic lining so it doesn't leak back into the solar(ph), then they evaporate it, then they process it. And there are really no toxic chemicals in a lithium-ion battery. It's a very environmentally benign process.

INSKEEP: Can lithium batteries end up running a significant part of our whole economy, even beyond cars?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, what they can do and what a lot of companies are working on right now is building gigantic banks of lithium-ion batteries that can store energy from power plants. So this is important for renewable energy, because the sun doesn't shine at night and the wind doesn't always blow.

INSKEEP: Right.

Mr. FLETCHER: So if you hook a tractor-trailer full of lithium-ion batteries up to a wind farm or a bank of solar cells, they can store that energy, and then it can be deployed on demand.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand where the technology is, because it's been said that the great limiting factor for electric cars for storing solar energy for when you need it, for storing wind energy for when you need it, is the inability to produce batteries that are good enough, that are strong enough. Is that still a fact right now?

Mr. FLETCHER: It depends on what you mean by good enough. I mean, we know exactly what the batteries that we have today can do. They can power a car like the Nissan Leaf, which is a four or five passenger hatchback, for 100, 120 miles on a charge, and then recharge overnight and last - I think they're warranteed for eight years. So we know they can do that.

They can't power that car farther. They should be able to soon, but it's going to be incremental advances. Batteries are going to get better, but we don't have a battery that can power a car for 500 miles and then recharge in 15 minutes. We just don't. And it's going to be a long time before we have that battery, but the batteries we have right now can do a lot of incredibly useful things, and they can do them very efficiently and affordably. And I think we would be wise to use them to do those things while we're simultaneously developing future chemistries that maybe could power a car 500 miles and recharge in 15 minutes.

INSKEEP: Seth Fletcher is senior editor at Popular Science and author of "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy."

Thanks very much.

Mr. FLETCHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.