Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – In the scientific journal Science Advances, Thomas R. Benton and his colleagues published a paper last month showing that a volcanic crater, the McDermitt Caldera, stretching across the Nevada and Oregon border may have doubled the world’s accessible lithium deposits. There are an estimated 88 million tons of lithium reserves in the world, but only about 22 million can be mined, practically speaking. But in the Thacker Pass area of the Caldera, on the Nevada side of the border, there may be 20 to 40 million tons of lithium. It is locked up in illite claystones, from which it can be extracted relatively easily. It is estimated to be the single largest lithium deposit now known in the world. Mining is slated to begin in 2026.
There are downsides. Environmentalists opposed the operations as polluting. Native Americans consider the area sacred. The issue went to court, and the judge sided with the corporation that wants to mine the lithium. I hope it took a lesson that the operation should proceed with as much environmental consciousness and sensitivity to local concerns as possible. It is also not clear how carbon-intensive the mining operations would be.
Still, the find is good news because some observers have worried that we will run out of lithium.
Only by ceasing to use coal, fossil gas and petroleum can we halt the continuing rise of the average surface temperature of the earth that contributed mightily to the catastrophes of the past summer. We need to electrify everything and to supply the electricity from non-carbon sources. The electrification of electricity and of vehicles at the moment depends significantly on the lithium ion battery. The batteries fuel electric vehicles. Since wind and sunshine are intermittent, battery storage is ideal for getting the full benefit of energy harvesting when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. California now has some 5 gigawatts of battery storage, which is helping prevent electricity outages during times of peak usage, typically around 5-8 pm, especially in hot months. The US will likely need some 300 gigawatts of battery storage by 2050.
So we will need lots of lithium, arguably more than the 22 million tons the world had plausible access to before the Thacker Pass deposit was discovered.
Worrying about lithium supplies decades into the future, however, is silly. It is a waste of time for many reasons.
Such worries do not take into account the plans to recycle lithium.
Then, battery technology is changing with incredible speed, and there are billions of dollars, both government and private, going into developing new, better, and more efficient batteries. The MIT Technology Review reports that the Department of Energy just gave a $400 million loan to Eos Energy, which is attempting to make inexpensive, efficient zinc-halide batteries. Zinc is the 24th most abundant material on earth and some 210 million metric tons of it are known to exist in the world.
Nickel-iron batteries, known for over a century, are also getting a second look by researchers eager to solve some longstanding problems with them. Nickel and iron are among the most plentiful materials on earth, and a successful battery based on them would be potentially much cheaper than lithium-ion batteries.
Even if we stay with lithium batteries, we will find more deposits and the price will fall. Capitalism has many faults, but it does impel certain efficiencies that cause needed primary materials to fall in price over time.
That was the lesson of the wager biologist Paul Ehrlich made with business Professor Julian L. Simon in 1980. Ehrlich bet that copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten would all become more expensive by 1990, because humans were using more and more of them. As Simon predicted, however, they fell in price, because their very desirability caused more of them to be mined.
Of course, the earth does have limits, and human beings are using more of its resources than is sustainable. But we are a long way from running out of basic metals, which can after all also be recycled.