Lithium is the key to powering a new generation of automobiles 

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 4:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 27, 2009

General Motors' recent marketing campaign to hype its new electric car, the Chevy Volt, sparked widespread interest. Consisting of a plain green background, a friendly electrical wall outlet enigmatically winks and smiles as it acts as the zero in the number "230."  Labeled only with the date of “8-11,” the ad was as mysterious as it was ubiquitous.  

Although it has yet to be officially tested by the EPA, GM claims the Chevy Volt has a fuel efficiency rating of 230 miles per gallon/city. The generous approximation drops precipitately when long-distance highway mileage is factored in, but this is still a huge step for a company scrambling to regain market share after a disastrous bankruptcy and an industry placing its bets on an electric future.  

Obviously, such advancements are heartening, and I am excited to see how the industry continues to develop, but, for me, more interesting than the Volt and the numerous other electric automobiles soon to be available are the issues that surround the technology needed to power them.

For GM the situation is thick with irony considering the push to manufacture environmentally friendlier automobiles has been as much about reducing carbon emissions as it has been about relieving America from foreign energy dependencies. The Volt might lead GM into the future, but the lithium-ion batteries that make up the heart of the Volt are provided by LG Chem, a subsidiary of the massive South Korean conglomerate LG Group, which produces electronics, communication devices and chemicals.

Even with the recent construction of a battery assembling plant in Brownstown Township, just south of Detroit, GM will continue to use the cells provided by LG Chem. Granted, any sort of job creation in Michigan is needed, but some question whether America is just swapping dependencies, and many are keeping a close eye on the emerging major players in the lithium industry.         

Lithium-ion batteries already power our daily lives from smart phones to laptops, but lithium has become the preferred metal for batteries by automakers because the lighter metal allows for a greater charge. Thus, lithium is being touted as the natural resource needed to power a new generation of vehicles.  

Typically found in brines below salt flats, lithium can be difficult to extract and the process can be time-consuming. Currently, the largest producers of lithium are Chile, Australia and Argentina, but China is becoming a key player as well.  However, Bolivia has become the Holy Grail for many multi-national corporations.  

Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flat is the world’s largest and estimated to possess half of the world’s lithium in the salty brine below its crusty surface.  As the New York Times reported, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates Bolivia to have 5.4 million tons of extractable lithium with Chile possessing 3 million tons and China 1.1 million tons.  The United States possesses a modest 410,000 tons.   

Currently, Bolivia is only producing a scant amount of lithium compared with larger producers, but the country is in the process of building its first lithium plant on the salt flat. Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, has made it clear that his country will live up to its catchy new nickname: “The Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, has had a history filled with foreign exploitation of its natural resources. Determined to prevent any repeats, Morales has nationalized Bolivia’s lithium industry as he previously did the oil and gas industries. If a corporation is granted permission to extract the metal, Morales is demanding the company establish processing and assembly plants within Bolivia, creating much needed industrial and economic growth.  

Such demands make companies wary, but doubts remain whether Bolivia possesses the economic and technological means to access and process its lithium, and there is still plenty of foreign interest. Harboring the usual South American distrust of the United States, Morales has given American interests the cold shoulder while visiting countries such as France and Russia and hosting corporations such as Bollore Group, Mitsubishi and, wait for it, LG Group.

Much of the future is uncertain when it comes to the lithium industry except for the fact that the industry will undoubtedly continue to grow. Developments this past year have been interesting to watch, and the political and corporate possibilities seem endless.   

If Bolivia is able to constructively work with foreign interests, the country could dominate the market. Furthermore, if Bolivia ever joined forces with the world’s other lithium producers, an OPEC-style cooperative could occur. And if GM continues to rely on foreign companies for the key components of its vehicles, it will be interesting to see if at some point down the road the Chevy Volt’s smiling wall outlet will one day be sporting a frown.   

 Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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Mark Foecking October 7, 2009 | 2:07 p.m.

"Morales has nationalized Bolivia’s lithium industry as he previously did the oil and gas industries. "

He nationalized the oil and gas industries in 2006. See what has happened to production since then (this is not uncommon among countries that nationalize hi-tech energy indistries):

Note consumption has not fallen. This is a good example of what happens when you let politics make your energy policy.

I'm not optimistic Bolivia will produce enough lithium in the near term to make the millions of electric cars we stake our personal transportation future on. I'll stick with my bicycle, thank you.


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