There are many technical difficulties to overcome but there is little doubt that some form of lithium battery will power electric cars of the next few decades.
The obstacles are formidable. Innovations in materials science, chemistry and engineering will be required to realize the potential to replace gasoline with lithium.
Projected to be realized in 10 to 20 years, transportation powered by lithium energy would severely shift the focus of resource development and environmental impact and would rearrange geopolitics.
The focus of America’s energy policy could shift away from OPEC pipelines in the Middle East toward lithium brine pools in South America as pristine and hard to reach wilderness areas become industrialized, and creating new environmental problems.
In the Atacama Desert in Chile, deep beneath the Salar de Atacama, ground water mixes with the salt to produce the lithium-bearing brines. Pumps bring the brine to the surface where they are spread out on the desert floor to evaporate. The brines also contain potassium, magnesium and other chemical elements.
A similar situation is the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, but sociopolitical obstacles to a full-fledged industry make it unclear whether Bolivia will become a major player in the market before 2020.
Together these two deposits compose three-quarters of the known world reserves. With Argentina holding the third largest supply of 8 percent and Brazil adding another 2 percent, South America is the "Middle East" of lithium.
The United States has less than 0.5 percent of the global reserves, most of which lie in Clayton Valley of Nevada, halfway between Reno and Las Vegas. There the Silver Peak mine has been in production for 40 years and has just received a U.S. Department of Energy grant to double production. Another company in the same area is working to develop a second mine.
Australia supplies one-fourth and China one-eighth of the world’s supply with only small amounts produced in other countries.
China, the world’s largest consumer, uses nearly 30 percent of the world production of lithium. The government is reportedly offering subsidies of up to $8,800 per electric vehicle purchased by taxi fleets and local government agencies in 14 Chinese cities.
By contrast the United States uses less than 5 percent at present, but these numbers will no doubt climb if electric vehicles become, as some experts predict, up to 20 percent of all vehicles on the road by 2020.
We will find ourselves in increasing competition with China and India, each of which will have more electric vehicles than the United States by 2020.
Global hegemony has always been in the hands of those who hold the resources, but the shift from carbon-based to lithium energy will cause major geopolitical shifts as we try to sustain our love affair with individualized transportation.
An article in the March 2010 New Yorker magazine goes deeply into the complexities of lithium politics in South America and its impact on the U.S. and other countries. The United States and other countries needing lithium will be subject to geopolitical forces not unlike those encountered with OPEC, and we know how that has turned out.