lithium

I need to resist the urge to drone on and on about this, but having failed to heed Matt’s encouragement to weigh in on the vital “worst bar in DC” debate, I feel obliged to pick this one up: why is CNAS’s post about lithium dumb?

First, some caveats: other than a brief tour through the world of materials science as an undergrad, several years’ worth of pestering ChemE PhD friends about related issues, and time spent watching resource-shock warnings fail to materialize, I have no credentials to offer on this score.  Defer to official-looking PDFs!

Onward. The first and most galling part is this:

Lithium is the lightest metal in nature and an excellent conductor of electricity, and these two properties make it especially useful for batteries.

This is just completely wrong. Lithium is useful for batteries because of its pronounced electrode potential.  Its lightness is a welcome attribute too, of course.  But the person who wrote that sentence simply doesn’t know much about batteries.

The other problem with the article is its wishy-washy buy-in of the peak lithium frame (the idea has been more forcefully expressed elsewhere).  Most of the world’s production of lithium ore comes from just a few places, and while CNAS acknowledges that they’re politically stable, Bolivia is on the docket as also having a lot of lithium, and what if they become the key source?!

Anyone who looks for them will see these resource-scare stories pop up on sites like Slashdot every once in a while.  It’s frustrating, and all too easy to fall for, but the dire scenarios they foretell never seem to come to pass.  I remember a professor with grave concerns about the unreliability of Kazakhstan’s chromium barons; yet a decade later, I have more stainless steel-clad consumer crap than ever.  And he was an expert!

With the general public, the capacity for resource fearmongering is much worse.  Most people don’t understand where metal comes from (admittedly, it is sort of mysterious).  As they attempt to puzzle out this question, the facts that they have to work with tend to be A) we’re running out of oil! and B) prospecting for gold looks hard in westerns.

Neither of these are really applicable to most mining.  Oil’s primary use is as fuel — it’s energy, not a durable good, and consequently we run through a ton of it.  As a result, small price shifts can have really serious consequences across the economy.  If you had to buy a new laptop battery every time your old one ran out of juice, the prospect of increasing lithium prices would concern me much more than it does.

Gold, meanwhile, is a heavy and therefore scarce element, and its nonreactivity helps to ensure that it’s difficult to mine.  It has some valuable properties, but it’s mostly valuable because it’s so rare.  Applying lessons about the difficulty of mining gold to the mining of other substances is a mistake.

Here’s the thing: ore is just material that has a little more of the substance you want in it than regular old rocks and dirt.  It’s a slightly better starting material, and therefore a more economical one to process.  But there are lots of grades of ore.  It sounds like Bolivia’s got some good stuff!  If that doesn’t work out, though, we can probably find some not-quite-as-good stuff (look! Wikipedia says a firm has figured out how to economically extract lithium from hectorite clay!). Or we can reactivate those not-currently-economical American mines that the CNAS post alludes to. Or we can recycle more lithium.  All it takes is money and a reckless disregard for the environment.  This is one of those things that the market really will solve.

So (still-theoretical) problems with our lithium supply could be bad news for the economic viability of electric cars, but we should resist the idea that we’re going to run out of any minerals.  I think we’re a long way from needing to panic about lithium supplies the way that we need to panic about oil supplies.

(Helium, though — boy, I don’t know. My friends Jeff and Marie have got me worried about it. Seriously: we need it to cool some extremely interesting magnets, it’s only found as a byproduct of natural gas extraction — the helium is trapped underground along with the NG — and once it’s in the atmosphere it diffuses into space. Stop buying balloons, you monsters!)

One Response to “lithium”

  1. Matthew Yglesias » Today I Found My Enemies; They’re in My Head

    [...] in our political discourse for the foreseeable future. Tom Lee informs me that this account is wrong in several technical aspects but even if it is this kind of “war for lithium” thinking is [...]

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