Jul 25 2015

Lithium: Changing Global Power

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Lithium: Fuel of the Future

From Tesla Roadsters to iPhones, laptops to golf carts lithium-ion batteries are an essential component of 21st century society. Current estimates project that by 2020, there will be over 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads, spurred by the rapidly decreasing costs of lithium-ion batteries which are becoming 6- 9 % cheaper with every doubling of production (Hunt 2015). Lithium-ion batteries are over three times more efficient and half the weight of lead- acid cell batteries (Fletcher 21). This makes them the ideal power source in hybrid and electric cars due to this reduced weight. Out of all the elements on the periodic table, lithium is far and away the most efficient for electrochemical storage. Lithium is incredibly light at 6.941 atomic mass units (amu) whereas lead is over thirty times heavier at 207.2 amu (Fletcher 20). Lithium is also incredibly willing to shed its outermost valence electron which contributes to its conductivity and ultimately allows it to pack so much power in such a small package (Fletcher 20).
Who (Literally) Holds the Power?

Most of the world’s most easily accessible lithium can be found in the region known as the Lithium Triangle- the area where the borders of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia meet (Fletcher 177). This area is dotted with salt flats, whose briny pools hold massive quantities of easily accessible lithium (Fletcher 176). The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is home to the largest lithium resources in the world, over 8.9 million metric tons (Fletcher 176).When considering the world’s supply of lithium, there are two ways of measuring the mineral: one is the amount of lithium reserves, which is the amount of mineral sources that can be legally and economically extracted today, and the other second is identified resources, which is simply known mineral deposits (Fletcher 217). In terms of reserves, Chile is dominant with around 7.5 million metric tons of lithium that could be accessed and mined today (Fletcher 217). China comes in second at 3.5 million metric tons followed by Argentina with 830,000 metric tons (Fletcher 217). The United States, on the other hand, is pretty far down the list with only 38,000 metric tons of reserves (Fletcher 217). The measures of identified resources, however, tell a much different story. Chile and China remain leaders, clocking in at second and third respectively, however, the overall global leader in identified resources is Bolivia with 9 million metric tons of lithium (Fletcher 217). Even more surprising, however, is that the United States, a developed country that had minimal reserves of lithium, is fourth in world with 4 million metric tons in identified resources (Fletcher 217). This is because in the United States, most of the lithium is located underground, which is much more expensive to extract than lithium carbonate located in salt pools on the surface. Meanwhile, in Bolivia there are different reasons for why an abundance of easily accessible lithium resources has not resulted in economic prosperity for the country. For one, Bolivia’s nationalized mining companies are too poor to build the infrastructure necessary for any kind of large scale mining operation and although there are many projects in the pipeline, none have come to fruition thus far (Fletcher 190). Bolivia’s government is also extremely wary of foreign exploitation, so they have banned all foreign mining operations in the Salar de Uyuni (Fletcher 190). Bolivians point to the fate of sub-Saharan African nations such as Nigeria that allowed foreign companies to come in and extract their natural resources, leaving behind environmental destruction while lining their own pockets (Fletcher 190). If Bolivia, can find the capital necessary to finance large scale mining operations in the Salar de Uyuni, they would be thrust immediately into the driver’s seat of the international lithium trade.
The New Lithium Economy

Lithium, however, could provide a significant counterweight to the current western dominated alliance of power, a leftover relic brought about by the Bretton Woods Institutions post World War II. As lithium-ion batteries become cheaper and more desirable, and as fossil fuels become more and more depleted, countries such as Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and China will become the largest stakeholders in the new lithium driven economy (Hunt 2015). These countries, by controlling a precious resource, could form an alliance, not unlike OPEC, and dominate the global lithium trade, leaving countries with significantly less resources, such as the United States, sitting on the fence (Hunt 2015). Lithium could be the catalyst these countries need, much like oil was for the Middle East, to catapult Bolivia and Chile into the global market and solidify China’s rise as the dominant global superpower.


Fletcher, Seth. Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. Print.

Hunt, Tam. “The Geopolitics of Lithium Production.” Green Tech Grid. Green Tech Media, 30 June 2015. Web. 24 July 2015.

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