Electric vehicles today depend on lithium mining to provide a constant supply of needed battery pack material. There are questions of how many reserves there are and where they are located.
Where is the Production
The current leading producer of lithium is Chile. Chile has reserves of around 3 million tons. Other world leaders are shown on the production chart.
On the Demand Side
Total world lithium demand in 2010 was around 24,500 tons. Demand is forecast to increase over the next ten years at a rate of about 5,000 tons per year. The largest current lithium industry users (about 50%) are ceramics and alloys.
Demand for all batteries in 2011 is about 15% of total lithium demand. By 2020 , batteries will increase to roughly 40% of the total demand. EV battery packs will be a large part of the demand growth in the next 10 years.
EV Battery Packs
Demand for Li-Ion based EV battery packs varies with battery chemistry. A few estimates [LCE = Lithium-Carbonate-Equivalent]:
Dundee Capitol Marlets: 425 grams LCE per kWh (80 g of lithium metal)
Argonne National Lab: between 113 g and 246 g of Lithium (600 g and 1.3 kg LCE)
For perspective: One ton of pure lithium is estimated to be roughly enough to produce around 400 million Chevy Volt (16kWh) or 250 million Nissan Leaf (24 kWh) battery packs.
Where are the Reserves
Bolivia: Bolivia, one of the poorest nations, may soon be getting a lot wealthier. High in the Andes is the Salar de Uyuni, a 10,000 sq km salt flat. The area has much promise, but production is difficult due to access issues and the need for production expertise, necessary for any lithium enterprise.
In addition, there are social and development problems. It will cost around $500 million to develop roads into the area. The lithium is also mixed with magnesium. Locals understandably want to keep control of production.
All these problems are being worked out. Pilot plants are now paving the way to producing from 30 to 50% of known world lithium ores. Reserves are estimated at up to 5,400,000 tons.
Canada: A site in Quebec has estimated reserves of nearly 46 million tons at 1.19% Li2O, and inferred resources of some 57 million tons at 1.18% Li2O. Production is estimated to begin in 2013 at 20,000 tons per year. Cost to start production is around $200 million US.
Afghanistan: An interesting reserve base has appeared in war torn Afghanistan. It happens that there is a large site high in the mountains near a plate margin surrounded by volcanoes - prime conditions for lithium formation. The size of the prospect has not been published, but is reported to be quite large.
USA : The US has been producing lithium for some time. The western US has the conditions of high altitude, plate proximate margin boundary, and volcanoes. American Lithium Minerals has embarked on a $4.5 million exploration program near the Borate hills of Southern California/Nevada.
Western Lithium Corporation is exploring its Kings Valley, Nevada, prospect. The prospect is estimated to contain some 48.1 million tons grading 0.27% lithium, or 650,000 tons of LCE. The Silver Peak, Nevada, mining district dates back 150 years and is the only current operating lithium mining facility in the US. A wealth of minerals from gold to silver have been mined in the district. The Silver Peak operation is estimated to have produced 234,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate at a rate of approximately 5,700 tonnes per year.
The Demand/Supply balance
Production numbers on the chart above are somewhat general as the USA does not widely publish their annual lithium production data.
There has been much discussion recently regarding the lithium demand to be imposed by electric vehicle batteries. The thrust of the discussions seem to focus on the idea that lithium is the new crude oil in terms of supply.
However, as it turns out, supply at this time is actually growing faster (several thousand tons per year) than demand. By 2020, there will likely be excess lithium production of ten thousand or so tons per year.
The result is stable prices projected through 2020 at least.