Lithium

The new driving force


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"Back in the day, we drilled for oil. We used it to power our cars, fuel our power stations, heat our homes. Sure it was toxic, flammable and smelt bad, but it was all we had."

Some time in the future, someone will say this. That's my prediction for the day. I'm not going to be held to a date, but the tide is turning towards electric vehicles.

I'm not an evangelist for them. No way. I like the smell of the internal combustion engine. But the fact is that we all need to breathe. And to be quite honest, it's not that easy to do so on Oxford Street these days. One engine makes very little difference, but the constant chugging of streams of diesel fuelled traffic has turned the air toxic. When central pillars of motoring like the RAC are putting out reports on air quality and condemning it, we really can't ignore it.

The future will be built on lithium and sunlight. With maybe some wind and rain thrown in. Tesla has already nailed its colours to the mast. Yes, it's designing and making the covetable vehicles of the electric age. But this alone won't make the change. It's the more mundane logistics of supply chains and scale that will be the key to their venture. Building a lithium battery plant with an output bigger than the rest of the plants in the world. Put together. A Gigafactory. That's what is convincing me that the change is unstoppable.

The plant will be sited in Nevada. Where the only active lithium mine in the US is sited. Tesla aims to use the power of Nevada's hot sun to power the factory at least in part. Panasonic is partly funding the plant and will handle production of the lithium-ion-cells for the batteries. The output is reported to be 35 gigawatt hours of 'storage' (batteries to you and me) per year for electric vehicles, with a further 15 gigawatt hours of other storage.

Nevada has the only active lithium mines in the US. The lithium is currently recovered from brine ponds in Silver Peak Nevada by Rockwood Minerals, although another mining company Western Lithium is touting extraction from hectorite, a lithium rich clay found in Humbolt County, as the next big step in production. Lithium deposits have been found in Wyoming, however if these prove inaccessible or less rich than thought, the Gigafactory would have to look to South America for minerals. Much of the worlds lithium is recovered from brine ponds in Chile and Brazil.

Luckily it's a plentiful resource (and until now, was mainly used in glass production). Whatever the eventual source of lithium, there is no mistaking the ambition or the route it will take. The Gigafactory will change the market and the flow of lithium around the globe. It will consume hundreds and thousands of tonnes of it and turn it into the fuel of the future.

And me. I see the logic. I can feel the direction of travel. I'm resigned to the fact some time in the decades to come, I will be polishing the Porsche 911 in my garage and feeding it a few drops of illicit petrol just to hear the engine turnover. Whilst all around, silent miracles of engineering will take us out to the movies, down to the shops and off to work without a whiff of smoke or a grumble of exhaust. Of course, that's not a bad thing. It's just that old habits die hard.

Sources: Marketwatch, GreenTech Media

Photo: TESLA headquarters c. Katharine Welles / Shutterstock.com


By Beate Kubitz at 3 Dec 2014, 00:00 AM