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.
It is only now, with the United States consuming more than twice as much oil as it produces, that policymakers are considering a shift that would place less emphasis on gasoline-powered vehicles.
If that happens, the role of lithium will expand dramatically, with mining companies scrambling to secure the metal, said Ann Marie Sastry, chief executive of Sakti3, an Ann Arbor, Mich., company that is working to develop batteries with more juice. Lithium is now used in ceramics, to power cellphones and laptops, and even as a component in drugs to treat manic depression.
Much of the world has had its eyes on Bolivia, which President Evo Morales claims has infinitely more of the metal than all other lithium-producing countries combined. His socialist government is trying to lure mining companies, but Bolivia's terms call for those investors to also fund a Bolivian-based lithium-ion battery industry.
While Japanese and South Korean companies have expressed interest, none is producing lithium in Bolivia. And in October, Morales held a press conference to lament that firms "want to invest just to buy lithium."
"And why do they want to buy only lithium carbonate from us?" Morales asked. "So the lithium battery industry remains outside Bolivia."
Jon Hykawy, a lithium analyst at Byron Capital Markets in Toronto, said another obstacle to mining lithium in Bolivia is that the 4,000-square-mile Uyuni salt flats where the metal is found are also laced with high concentrations of magnesium. That, combined with a nationalistic government and substandard roads, would make production highly expensive, he said.
"There are major lithium producers," Hykawy said, "and they've all backed away."
Instead, production is picking up in Chile, the world's largest producer, and in Argentina. The two countries account for more than half of the world's lithium production.
Among the big players are New Jersey-based Rockwood Holdings and the Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile, both of which mine salt flats in Chile. In Argentina, the companies include FMC of Charlotte, which relocated here from Bolivia, and Orocobre of Australia, which has agreed to provide lithium from Argentina for a major supplier to Toyota.
Exar, the Argentine affiliate of Lithium Americas, has been punching exploration holes in the Cauchari-Olaroz salt flats, a moonscape-like plateau in northern Argentina not far from the Bolivian border.
Evaporation tanks are then used to remove the brine, leaving behind lithium that is then tested in a lab to determine its mixture with other elements. One cannot really see the finished product. Highly reactive, lithium does not occur freely in nature.
"We cannot show off lithium as if it were some metal ingot," Dias, the geologist and Exar manager, said in the company's lab. "We only have it in a molecular state, or diluted in the brine."
But Exar and its shareholders, among them Mitsubishi, think the salt beds here may contain up to 8 million tons of lithium. That would give the company control over the world's third-largest deposit.