S. American mountains hold key to electric car's future: lithium for batteries

If electric cars are ever to flourish, a once-obscure metal crucial for the batteries in those cars, lithium, will probably be mined by the tens of thousands of tons in the high Andes.
Locator map of Susques, Argentina
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 8:43 PM

IN SUSQUES, ARGENTINA It's the lightest of all metals, skitters wildly on water and can unexpectedly explode. To mine it commercially requires an elaborate process involving drilling, evaporation tanks and chemical processing.

But if President Obama is to fulfill his goal of putting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, a once-obscure metal crucial for the batteries in those cars, lithium, will probably be mined by the tens of thousands of tons here in the high Andes. Its boosters say lithium will one day rival petroleum in value, and that has prompted a race to secure mining rights across this craggy, bone-dry mountain range where vast salt flats contain some of the world's largest deposits.

"These are the most notable reserves at the moment," said Horacio Dias, a geologist who manages operations here for Exar, an Argentine affiliate of Canada's Lithium Americas Corp. "We think there is enough here to last many years."

Mining executives are banking that lithium-ion batteries, which carry a longer-lasting charge than the lead acid variety long used in vehicles, will become cheap enough to help spur a mass market for electric cars or gas-electric vehicles. The Obama administration, trying to reduce America's reliance on foreign oil, has provided $2.4 billion in grants to car companies, battery makers and suppliers.

Whether the salt beds here in the heart of South America become a mecca for lithium, as mining companies predict, depends as much as anything on American scientists as far away as Watertown, Mass.

There, A123 Systems, a battery technology company with roots at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, is working to create lithium-ion batteries that would give electric cars a greater range - say, 200 to 300 miles - between recharging. A typical battery uses only a few pounds of lithium, but other components make such batteries expensive - by some estimates, well over $10,000 each - and bulky.

Failure could mean that cars such as General Motors' new Volt, a gas-electric hybrid that costs $41,000 before a $7,500 federal tax rebate to buyers, will remain too pricey for all but a small number of American car buyers. The Volt can go about 40 miles on an electric charge before the driver must switch to the car's internal-combustion engine. Fully electric cars can go 100 or more miles between recharges.

"We need to demonstrate that we can reduce the cost of this over the next four or five years to make the sale of these things take off without government stimulus," said David Vieau, chief executive of A123, which received a $249 million federal grant to build factories in Michigan. "It is a critical component for getting the volume up and helping drive the cost out while we make these batteries more efficient."

Some of the projections on the future of electric cars - and lithium use in cars - are promising.

Nissan has said that by 2020, one in 10 cars worldwide may use lithium batteries. And Pike Research, a consulting firm in Boulder, Colo., said the market for lithium-ion batteries could expand to $8 billion in five years, from less than $900 million this year.

"Virtually every major car company around the globe has some sort of a hybrid electric vehicle program going," Vieau said.

Electric cars and their gas-electric cousins are not new. Ferdinand Porsche's hybrid was presented at a Paris exhibition in 1900. In the United States, there were 50,000 electric cars plying the roads in 1918. But big oil discoveries and Henry Ford's introduction of the Model T quickly established the dominance of the internal-combustion engine.

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