Lithium – European Energy Security Recharged

, by Maximilian Rech

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Lithium – European Energy Security Recharged

Two consecutive Russo-Ukrainian gas disputes and the upcoming Copenhagen summit finally convinced European heads of state to make European energy security a priority. European member states tasked the European Commission to propose solutions to supply-side diversification and demand-side regulation. Next to supply and demand, however, the European Union should start to search for solutions to energy storage.

Are you reading this article off your laptop’s screen? Does your ipod have enough battery power to listen to your latest favourite album? Is your hybrid car charged for this weekend’s holiday trip and did you upload the latest roadmaps on your mobile phone?

Energy storage becomes increasingly important as the average European is surrounded by a myriad of electronic devices. All these very convenient tools have one aspect in common. They rely on lithium ion rechargeable battery power. Therefore, lithium is the resource that will guarantee energy storage in an increasingly high-tech society.

Where do Europeans get their lithium?

Lithium can be found as either lithium chloride in salt pans and brine lakes or as a component of a hard mineral called spudomene, containing both lithium and aluminium. Currently, 75.000 tonnes of lithium carbonate are produced every year. 20.000 tonnes of lithium are used for heat resistant ceramics and glass. 55.000 tonnes are produced from salt lakes by way of water evaporation and subsequent purification. These 55.000 tonnes are used for lithium ion batteries. [1]

Lithium production is geographically concentrated. Roughly 50% of global output is produced in Chile and Argentina. Minor producers include China, Australia, Russia, the U.S. and several other countries. All minor producers are either industrialised or emerging economies that largely consume their domestic production. South America is thus the only source of lithium for Europe.

Even if European companies cooperate and if consumption remains at current levels, Europe will be highly dependent on lithium supply from South America.

When looking at the globally available resources by geographic distribution, Bolivia accounts for more than 35% of lithium carbonate obtainable worldwide. Although not producing lithium yet, President Evo Morales is determined to change this. He envisages sustainable standards for exploitation that respect both Bolivia’s economic interests as well as environmental concerns of the population around the salt lake ‘Salar de Uyuni’.

Franco-German ARTE indicated that licenses will be sold soon and that the French company Bolloré has heavy competition from German car manufacturers, a consortium of Japanese enterprises, including Mitsubishi, as well as other Asian firms. [2] The upcoming months are crucial for both the future of Bolivia’s environment and the future of lithium ion batteries in Europe. Given Franco-German competition, however, it seems as if Europe fails to unite again.

Long-term contracts with guarantees for sustainable exploitation are very important, because South America is host to 75% of lithium. [3] This resource is becoming ever more important to a society increasingly dependent on energy storage. Despite the fact that production is set to rise and the world’s largest resources in Bolivia have not yet been tapped into, the geo-strategic situation can become very dangerous. Even if European companies cooperate and if consumption remains at current levels, Europe will be highly dependent on lithium supply from South America.

Innovation in transport

“Top transport officials from 21 major countries agreed on Friday, January 16, 2009 to promote the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in the sector to combat climate change” Reuters reported recently. “Shipping, airline and inland transport, which together contribute over 20 percent of mankind’s CO2 emissions, will be a key part of a new U.N. climate pact.” [4]

Disturbing indeed and the perception of the availability of lithium quickly changes when looking at Europe’s daily traffic collapse with all its endless traffic jams. Cars are burning precious fossil fuels and by emitting huge amounts of CO2 they harm the environment. Dwelling on alternatives to oil and gas, electric cars are the obvious choice. European car manufacturers have chosen lithium ion batteries as their solution to energy storage.

Benjamin Beutler from the Forum for Peace Studies at Kassel University mentions several advantages of lithium- over cadmium-based rechargeable batteries: “They weigh less, are more powerful, can contain more energy and they are faster to de- and re-charge. Lithium makes the vision of industrial mass production of electronic vehicles realistic.” [5]

There is one problem however. Once the automobile industry makes the long overdue shift away from oil and gas towards electronic motors, the supply of lithium could be depleted within years. To supply all of the roughly one billion automobiles with lithium ion batteries would require over 35% of global lithium resources – or all of Bolivia’s lithium. Considering that many people in emerging economies may want a car of their own, this number is set to rise sharply. “Analysis shows that a world dependent on lithium for its vehicles could soon face even tighter resource constraints than we face today with oil” says William Tahill from Meridian International Research. [6]

What can Europeans do about it?

1. Increase energy efficiency in transport by investing in Trans European Networks and high-speed rail connections to offer valid alternatives to planes. Tax kerosene as all other fuels to avoid the artificially created comparative advantage of air travel and strengthen public transport in each and every city to offer valid alternatives to cars.

2. Sign long-term contracts for lithium exploitation today and seek environmentally and economically sustainable exploitation in Bolivia. Unite European industries in a consortium to guarantee lithium supply instead of having Franco-German competition. Invest in Research & Development to make alternative energy storage economically viable for industrial mass production of electronic automobiles and save small lithium batteries for portable electronic devices.

3. Continue working on a long-term strategy for European energy security that aims at strengthening renewable energies to achieve supply side diversification. To avoid energy shortages, the access to conventional as well as renewable sources of energy has to be ensured and investment in energy infrastructure, be it Nabucco or Desertec, is needed.

Continuing to burn fossil fuels is not an option. European heads of states have to convince both the industry and the wider public to take decisive action. However, Europe has to develop viable solutions to energy storage today before the industrialised economies create yet another resource-race hot spot with conflict-ridden societies – not in the Middle East or Africa for a change – but in South America’s Andes.

Image:
- Green energy, source: google images

Footnotes

[1William Tahill, Meridian International Research (2007). The Trouble with Lithium. Retrieved on July 12, 2009 from: http://www.meridian-int-res.com/Projects/Lithium.htm.

[2Sébastien Mesquida et Yann Le Gléau, ARTE (2009). Bolivie: au pays de l’or gris. Retrieved on July 13, 2009 from: http://www.arte.tv/fr/Comprendre-le-monde/arte-reportage/ARTE-Reportage/2721514,CmC=2721516.html

[3Next to Bolivia’s 35% of lithium reserves, Chile accounts for 20%, Argentina for 13% and Brazil for another 6%. Together these countries represent roughly 75% of all available lithium worldwide.

[4Risa Maeda, Thomson Reuters (2009). Transport ministers agree to promote lower CO2 emissions. Retrieved on July 12, 2009 from: http://www.reuters.com/article/GCA-BusinessofGreen/idUSTRE50E3CW20090116

[5Benjamin Beutler, AG Friedensforschung an der Uni Kassel (2009). Rohstoffpoker in der Andenrepublik. Retrieved on July 11, 2009 from: http://www.uni-kassel.de/fb5/frieden/regionen/Bolivien/lithium2.html

[6William Tahill, Meridian International Research (2007). The Trouble with Lithium. Retrieved on July 12, 2009 from: http://www.meridian-int-res.com/Projects/Lithium.htm.

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