Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Massive deposit of lithium found in Wyoming could meet all U.S. demand (treehugger.com)
226 points by MikeCapone on Apr 25, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 62 comments

This article (and the UW press release they quote) state that the estimated 228,000 tons of lithium present at the site is "enough to meet annual U.S. demand". I'm not sure what this last statement means since it isn't qualified by "for XXX years assuming no increase in consumption".

According to the USGS[1], US consumption for 2011 was estimated at ~2000 tons. So, this source is, indeed, significant. According to the article, it is also twice as large as the other known US source (in Nevada), so combined, the US has ~150 years worth of domestic Li at its current consumption rates.

[1] https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/mc...

Some more detail would be needed to determine what portion of that is feasible to extract. The USGS document you link, for example, estimates (before this discovery) 38,000 tons of domestic reserves, but that is with a conservative definition of reserves that includes only those considered feasible to extract with current technology and market conditions. The total domestic reserves of lithium deposits known to exist were closer to 400,000 tons, from what I can find, i.e. only about 10% of domestic reserves are considered feasible to extract. How much of an impact this discovery has will depend on what proportion of that 228,000 tons ends up in each category.

The "reserve" is usually what's feasible to extract with current technology, with the total amount of stuff present being the "resource". See, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mineral_resource_classification. People often aren't particularly precise about the distinction.


So let's be precise. A Proven Ore Reserve is not all that is feasible to extract with current technology, it is all that which has been proven feasible. Emphasis on proven.

Given a large resource area it's generally the case that only a partial area has been studied to the degree required to classify as Proven (often three or four increasingly detailed Technical Reports down the line).

If the lithium deposits in the article have only just been found (that part is unlikely given they've gotten to the stage of having a rough estimate) then there's some way to go before they are sampled to the point of being feasible. Moreover if the deposit is split into portions it's probable that only one sub deposit at a time will climb the ladder to Proven.

Investors would be watching for a gradual climb in the degree of Tech Report being released and poised to bet the bank just prior to the release of an Economic Feasibility Study, typically the first Prospectus to be floated (if it goes public) would be of the order of ~$50 million for a drill survey; a 'low cost' high risk evaluation. The penultimate Feasibility Study consolidates all the prior deposit evaluations and outlines the plant and extraction costs, paving the way for a 'big bucks' Prospectus to fund the major initial extraction capital costs.

And lithium can be recycled, so if the price of mining more lithium increases too far, expect the amount of recycled lithium used to increase as well.

>lithium can be recycled

Question, for anyone out there who might know: How much lithium (and of what quality) can be recovered from a typical modern li-on battery? How difficult is the process?

I dont know enough about these things but that seems like an incredible rate.


> I mean when you get a rate that high, it seems like it must be just a relatively heavy element, and a metal, like Gold, and relatively unreactive (just carrying ions and such).

This is the opposite of the truth. Lithium is not dense at all (~.53g/cm^3), especially for a metal, and as a Group 1 metal is extroardinarily reactive - if you cut lithium it will oxidize as you watch, and if you expose it to water is will explode into flaming chunks.

> I imagine they don't get to 100% because they just don't bother to heat it high enough to melt things in there with a ridiculously high melting point and risk creative copper fumes and whatnot (from some metals evaporating). i.e. it's still easy, they just don't want to.

No. Lithium has a very low melting point (roughly 180C/355F).

Furthermore, your contention that a process with an efficiency of 93% should be easy to bring to 100% is so off base I don't even know where to begin. Squeezing out the last few percentage points is the hardest part!

Lithium is one of the lightest solid elements.

My chemistry is very bad, but that seems to be in 3M HCl with added H2O2 at 80°C. Combining that mix with Lithium batteries, to me, sounds like a process that may be difficult to safely scale up from the lab.

nope, that's a peracid, it's how you eat metals. Refluxing aqua regia happens, too.

At least there's not a lot of nitrogen involved.

So, if battery life is 10 years, and we can recover 93% of the lithium, in 90 years we'll have lost roughly half of it, and in 400 years we'll be left with 5% of our present supply.

That is: we lose half the original amount after 9 recyclings, and 95% in 40. Scale time to exhaust known lithium reserves accordingly in the event battery life is longer or shorter than stated above.

The lithium does not dissapear. If we ever do 'run out' of lithium (or similar resources), then we would still be able to mine it from our own waste. The only question is how expensive the resource has to get before it becomes economical to do so.

Well, yes.

But considering that, oh, say, batteries returned for recycling are going to be a relatively rich source of lithium, the recycling waste itself is no more viable a source than any other ore.

You can separate minerals from one another given sufficient energy inputs, but then you're getting at the issue of EROEI for the entire battery storage chain. Pretty much anything, even gold, can be extracted from seawater, given sufficient energy investment.

I'm also curious as to the demand figures. This and a related story concerning Bolivian lithium cite "demand" and (in the case of Bolivia) enough lithium to provide batteries for 4.8 billion automobiles. Which sounds like a lot. http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/bolivia-h... http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a...

But the Bloomberg piece does provide some quantification:

"By 2014, the mine will produce 30,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate, more than Rockwood’s mine in Chile, which is the world’s second largest. Bolivian scientists say there are about 95 million tons of lithium under the Uyuni Salt Flat"

So:  95 million tons supplies 4.8 billion automobiles.

Simple division gives us 19.4 kg of lithium per vehicle.

The Tesla Model S battery weighs on the order of 400kg. I'll assume half that weight is lithium. Clearly the Bloomberg piece isn't referring to high-range Tesla-style plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), of which Bolivia could only supply 475 million batteries. That's enough to satisfy the US, but hardly the world, let alone give everyone in the world, or even one in ten, a PEV, plus LiON-powered smartphone, tablet, and other rechargeable devices.

And the rather more modest Wyoming find at 228,000 tons would be good four roughly 1.14 million vehicles.

The simple truth is that we've been able to rely on fossil fuels for much of the past century to provide a convenient energy storage package that's going to be exceptionally difficult to replace. And we will have to replace it.

The Tesla apparently uses LiNiCoAlO2 (NCA lithium ion). So just starting from the chemistry gets you to less than 4% lithium by weight (~3.8%). Throw in packaging and such and really, the individual cells are more like 2%. The cells apparently weigh ~50 grams, so 7000 of them weigh ~350 Kg (7000 is the Tesla cell count, really 6,831).

2.5% of 350 Kg is 8.75 Kg. So a slightly less conservative estimate scales your figures by a factor of 22.

Edit: The Model S probably uses NCA batteries (it's hard to say). Lithium is still only 7% by weight of LiCoO2 (Leaving at least a factor of 10).


So, scaling by 22, we get roughly 10.5 billion battery packs out of the Bolivian reserves. That's rather more sufficient.

I suspect cobalt is more likely to be the limiting factor.

Seems to me like current and near-future levels are the only thing really worth discussing at this point, since predicting future demand for lithium seems ridiculously challenging. On the one hand, if electric cars actually take off (a big if), it seems at this point like lithium ion will be the most likely energy storage mechanism, so you could see a huge ramp-up in demand. On the other, if supercapacitor technology delivers on the promise some think it now has, it (or some other as-yet-unidentified energy storage or production technology) could pull the bottom out from under the lithium ion battery market. The outcome of each of those could shift future demand by a couple of orders of magnitude in either direction vs. current demand.

But probably not for at least a decade or so. So we may as well talk about this in today's terms.

Whether future demand for lithium includes less than 1% of the new cars sold in the US, as is true today, or near 100%, is in large part a function of the price of lithium. Most car buyers would probably love to have an 85kwh battery pack like Tesla sells in the Model S, but are only willing to pay a fraction of what Tesla is currently charging (no pun intended). But if an electric Toyota Camry equivalent with an 85 kwh battery pack were available that had a lifetime cost equal to a gasoline Camry, we'd probably see little demand for the gasoline version.

However we can look at what possible applications of rechargeable batteries are, and how known reserves fit into that picture.

Humans are looking very hard to replace our go-to energy storage media: solid coal and liquid petroleum, both of fossil origin. We'll have to replace them under one of two circumstances: we exhaust them, or we cannot continue to abide the CO2 they produce. We're likely to run into both constraints within the next 20 years, if not already.

And when you start scaling known reserves of known battery component minerals against the task of providing, say, affordable transportation to a large portion of the planet's population, or even that portion which presently owns cars, the math starts falling apart pretty quickly.

Lithium is nice for mobile and transportation applications because it's light and has a high storage density relative to mass. Lead-acid batteries also work, and there's probably enough lead to supply a lot of automobiles, but it's messy and toxic and heavy.

When you start looking to grid-scale storage, even lead, as abundant as it is, comes up short: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/08/nation-sized-bat...

More likely: molten-salt or liquid metal batteries. They're heavy and have lower power densities, but the raw materials are cheap and abundant. Thermal storage (again, molten salt, but used as a heat transfer fluid) and flywheels (very expensive relative to capacity, and having their own engineering challenges) might also see application, the latter having benefits for being able to respond very rapidly to large changes in supply or demand.

>Humans are looking very hard to replace our go-to energy storage media: solid coal and liquid petroleum, both of fossil origin.

So you're ignoring the stored energy vs. energy storage distinction. Yes, yes, oil and coal are storing energy from the sun from a billion years ago. But the energy there is already stored. You can't replace that by making a better battery, you need somewhere to get the energy to charge your battery. If you have a cost effective source of energy (wind/nuclear/solar/etc.) to replace them, you can at worst produce carbon-neutral oil synthetically, though alternatives may be more efficient. That doesn't mean storage isn't a problem (efficiency is king there), but it's a different problem -- if we solved the supply problem then regardless of storage we could shut down existing coal and oil fired electrical generating stations. If we only solved the storage problem we would still be burning coal to make electricity.

> So you're ignoring the stored energy vs. energy storage distinction. Yes, yes, oil and coal are storing energy from the sun from a billion years ago.

While that's an astute observation, it's not my point.

It's also somewhat imprecise: most petrochemical deposits were made ~650 - 65 million years ago. But that's just a nit.

I'm not concerned with where and when existing hydrocarbons were deposited. Merely their very high energy density and (for now) extremely high prevalence. High enough that it's more feasible to operate cars by combusting petroleum than it is to run them on batteries with 10 year lifetimes and 93% recoverability in recycling, simply because there isn't enough accessible lithium on the planet to create enough batteries to replace the cars already on the road.

Even if you had a cost-effective energy source, lithium-ion batteries aren't going to give us enough storage capacity. Due to a shortage of storage medium, not energy.

Which means something else has to give: we don't all own private automobiles (leasing or hiring autonomous vehicles when needed might make this possible). Or we use other storage media: lead-acid, flywheels, compressed air. Or, as you suggest (and I suspect), synthetically generated hydrocarbons, either liquid or gas.

The known efficiencies of this last process are low: at best, maybe 10% of incident sunlight, more likely somewhere between 0.1% to 1%. Which is actually far better than the net efficiency of the production of existing fossil hydrocarbons, it's just that they've accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. As the paper below illustrates, in one year (1997), human fossil fuel consumption amounted to some 422 times the plant matter fixed via photosynthesis (net primary productivity or NPP). Fossil fuel consumption from 1751 - 1998 corresponds to over 13,300 years of NPP. Which is actually somewhat less than I'd have thought.

Net photosynthetic efficiency is around 2.4%. Conversion of biomass to hydrocarbons is the great unknown. Transportation amounts for roughly 1/4 of global energy use. I'll assume that large measures of this might be substituted by other than liquid fuels (EVs, human power, electrified passenger and freight rail, substituting high-speed rail for air), but a significant portion of long-haul land, water, and virtually all air traffic will likely require a highly dense chemical fuel. That will mean one or more of: synthetic (carbon-neutral) hydrocarbons, carbon offsets while continuing to use fossil fuels (while they last), and/or a hell of a lot less transportation. Or create a runaway greenhouse situation.

Frankly none of the options is great.

Replacing all present fossil fuel use with existing biomass would require 22% of the present total primary productivity of the planet, a 50% increase of the amount of NPP humans already consume. And that's if we're counting on using biomass directly, not relying on conversion to other forms (e.g.: ethanol), which drastically reduces net photosynthetic conversion efficiency. Last time I checked, we don't typically run cars on wood or straw (though ships once ran predominantly on solid coal).


Thanks, I was wondering exactly the same thing. "Meet demand for how long?" I thought it might be a single year since it never specified, but 228k tons seemed a bit high.

Sounds like it'll be a while before we know exactly how much of it we can mine.

There is another deposit in Nevada called Kings Valley that is in feasibility. It's about 300,000 tonnes LCE, and fairly likely to go into production.

If the Wyoming deposit it real (their numbers wouldn't float for a listed company and they're short on details), it's probably 10+ years away from production. Neat discovery, but very speculative.

http://www.westernlithium.com/project/ is the Kings Valley project.

"equivalent to about 720 years of current global lithium production"

In a best-case scenario, the 2,000-square-mile Rock Springs Uplift could harbor up to 18 million tons of lithium [http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2013/04/uw-researchers-lithium-d...]

I have no experience in the mining industry, but is it possible that current technology has a limit on how quickly it can extract lithium from a deposit given the area of the exposed cross section?

No, it's really the economics of it. Lithium and other evaporite minerals are usually concentrated in ponds so the evaporation rate can play a part, but usually it's a matter of efficiently using the capital over the lifetime of the operation.

It's easy to drill more wells or build more ponds.

I work in the industry and, as luck would have it, am on a project near the facility in Nevada.

Only about 6 grams per person per year? I guess the batteries are mostly just other stuff...

so long as currently mined lithium is never reused...

my understanding is that the Lithium in a used battery is still perfectly good to be used in another battery.

The U.S has an enormous amount of rare earth metals. [1] But the processes of extracting the ore have such a horrendous effect on the environment that the only country willing to mine the metals in significant quantities is China, and the villages in China near the mining sites have suffered as a result [2]. The U.S is rife with abuses of the environment — mountaintop removal mining, anyone? — but so far no one has been willing to match the rare earth metal production levels of China.

[1] http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=2642&from=rs...

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/aug/07/china-rare...

The most important implication of this discovery is that while the price of lithium could plunge, decreasing the costs of lithium vehicle batteries, unless we put a system in place that uses regulatory and market forces to guarantee that this lithium is recovered and recycled, we will have a huge environmental problem on our hands. Disposal and sequestering of lithium metal is a significant part of the overall cost of an EV-focused transport system. Global demand by 2020 is projected by USGS to be about 300,000 tons a year, so the effect of this single discovery might not be that large; the major advantage is preventing China from exercising monopoly power on Li production. But I am confident that many more discoveries are out there (I used to be a geologist and worked around Silver Peak in the past), so I think the time is now to start figuring out how to avoid taking all that Li in brine and spreading it throughout our waste stream.

For the most part, the cost of production is what matters. If Chilean lithium costs $x and US lithium costs $3x then it doesn't matter how is in the ground in the US, the lithium will come from Chile.

Until Chinese demand for Chilean a/o Bolivian lithium drives its price over $3x, at which point, having a local supply this big is a huge deal.

Really, only in the sense that this source pushes out the aggregate supply curve, delaying the point in time when prices get higher.

Practically, once prices become 3x of current, that's what everyone will pay on average, it just means (in this thought experiment) that some miner sourcing from America is marginally profitable, while some miner from South America is very profitable.

Did the existence of shale oil or tar sands delay crude breaking $80/barrel? More expensively exploited resources typically aren't exploited until their market price makes such exploitation profitable. We've known about the vast amounts of oil under the Bakken Formation since the 1950s, for example.

If this stuff is more expensive than Bolivian lithium, we won't do more than tinker with it until it's not, and consequently I wouldn't expect it to have much impact on the price curve — we'll all still be buying the same stuff until then.

Digging through the details in the original article that treehugger links to, it appears that the size of this deposit is not entirely characterized, but that it probably corresponds to approximately 9 years of global lithium production at current rates. (228K tons, with usage of 25K tons per year).

The Jevons Paradox should change those numbers considerably.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Jevons Paradox attempted to show that (for example) coal prices didn't go down when we learned to get more energy from the same coal. It would NOT apply to increased efficiency in coal MINING.

The Jevons Paradox - in my understanding - applies to our use of a resource, not its collection. I'm sure our demand for lithium will go up, but again that's not the Jevons Paradox - that's basic supply and demand.

JP will be in reaction to increased demand (usage).

Isn't the main limiting factor of lithium (and other rare earth metals) the willingness to handle the refining process within one's borders rather than the amount of the metal available in deposits?

My understanding is that the reason China has such a huge fraction of lithium production is driven largely by their willingness to execute the very dirty refining process themselves.

I think you may be thinking of rare earth metals.

Does anyone know if this would affect the price of Li-on batteries? I'm curious to know if it would make Tesla's cars cheaper.

What few people realize about lithium batteries is it's not the lithium that's scarce and expensive, but the alloying elements that go in to make the electrode- most EV batteries use more Cobalt by weight than Lithium, and Cobalt is more expensive per pound.

Lithium's one of the lightest metals, so a little bit goes a long way.

IIRC cobalt is not only scarce, it's also mostly mainly produced in the Congo and Zambia, and anywhere referred to as the "Democratic Republic of..." is probably not as politically stable as one might hope.

Good to know, thank you.

This made me curious too... What is the cost breakdown of a Tesla car? What part(s) do we need to improve to lower the price to that of a regular luxury car?

What exactly is a "regular luxury car"? It sounds like an interesting designation for any article. If it's regular, is it still a luxury?

I presume umsm meant ICE or non-electric luxury car. ie, ones that don't require any advanced battery tech.

I would consider a mid-range lexus as a regular luxury car. There are extremes (anything over $120k: Bentley, Maybach, etc.) but those are out of the reach of the masses.

My point is this: If a Tesla would be a petrol-powered vehicle, how much would it cost? Now find out WHY/WHERE there's a difference and look at that.


Isn't it as simple as "because they can"?

A Patek Phillipe watch is lovely, but probably doesn't have $30,000 worth of materials and labour involved. The rest is just pricing for a luxury good.

You're paying for the brand, that's true, but not $25k of that is the brand. You have to consider the materials, manufacturing process of individual pieces, labor, marketing expenses, service, etc.

Generally: Companies try to give you the best for the money.

BMW, Lexus, etc.

Equivalent models of which are priced about the same as the Model S variants.

I recall that a large reserve was also found in Afghanistan a few years ago. Link: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-06/why-finding-li...

What I'm curious about (instead of whether I can afford an electric car for cheaper or not), is how this will affect Bolivia, then.

On the one hand it's a major source of income swiped away underneath them. But on the other hand, if this source of income was property in the hands of only a few (I'm not at all sure if/how this is the case), shaking things up may have very different consequences (also not necessarily good ones btw).

The article doesn't say who owns the mineral rights to the land containing the site. If it's a private owner then they are the ones who have hit the jackpot. If it's government-owned, then the benefit we (as a nation) get from it depends on how well it's administered.

This discovery gives breathing room to the ongoing research into the use of graphene to improve and extend the capabilities of lithium-ion batteries.

It's equally interesting that both seem recyclable as well.

I'm so happy, cuz today I found lithium on in here

Now I am depressed.

I got a chuckle out of this, but really.. this is HN, not Fark.com.

Registration is open for Startup School 2019. Classes start July 22nd.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact