Lithium Supplies – Locked and Loaded

While some have asked where we’re going to get Lithium for the next generation of Lithium-Ion batteries for cars, others are actually mining for Lithium. Western Lithium of Canada (WLC) has announced their Kings Valley Nevada site has twice the amount of Lithium in their stage II lens as previously expected.

WLC, in a recent press release, also stated that their target for their stage I lens production is 27,700 metric tonnes per year of Lithium Carbonate (LCE, or chemically Li2CO3). The math to turn that into the number of EVs is easy – 27,700 metric tonnes is 27,700,000 kg of LCE. In 1kWh of a Lithium-Ion battery there is about 0.9kg of LCE. This means that 27.7M kg of LCE per year is about 30.8M kWh of batteries that can be produced. They have an expected 18 years at this rate of supply to mine (approximately 500,000 metric tonnes LCE total).

In a pure EV (like the Nissan Leaf) the battery is 24kWh, so from 27,700 tonnes of LCE comes 1.28M Nissan Leaf battery packs per year. In a EREV like the Chevy Volt, its battery pack is 16kWh, so 1.9M battery packs would be able to be manufactured for the Volt.

To put these numbers in perspective, in 2009 there were a total of 10.4M cars sold in the US, and in 2008 approximately 13M cars sold. So this single lithium mine could power up to 15% of all the US EVs and EREVs sold, if the automakers could build and sell that many (which they wont, at least initially).

So the question is, how many tonnes of LCE would it take to make every car sold in America a plug-in? From a small two-mode system that would allow for 8-12kWh batteries for 10-15 miles at speeds below 60MPH, all the way up to pure EVs with 50kWh batteries. If we assume that 70% of cars sold are two-mode at 10kW, 20% are EREV (18kWh) and the last 10% are pure EVs (35kWh avg), the total kWh for a year of 14M cars is 197.4M kWh, or 177.3M kg of LCE. So in order to produce enough LCE, we would need to produce about 180,000 metric tonnes of LCE, or about 6.5x the amount of stage I.

The stage II lens has approximately 1.365M tonnes of LCE, and at 180,000 metric tonnes per year, it would be exhausted after 7.5 years, assuming the production rate could be sustained.

Seven and a half years might not be a long time, however there are still several other stages to this mine area (stages three and four), plus there are other lithium mines in the Nevada and the US. It appears that Lithium supplies wont be a blockade on the road to electric cars. While Li-Ion batteries can also contain other precious metals that might be scarce, Lithium shouldn’t be an issue.

I-11: Building what we can now

In response to an article about getting the new I-11 highway done quicker, there are things we can do right now to get the project moving along. First is the Boulder City Bypass. At around $400M total (phase 1 and 2) it is a substantial amount of work, most of which is cutting through the El Dorado mountains east of BC. The good news is that the environmental work is already complete and the first phase of the project is about to get under way. Short of any lawsuits from environmental groups, work on the final design and construction could start pronto.

What we need is about $360M over the course of 3-4 years for a design-build phase 2. But this is a good starting point. Think of this project as the cornerstone to the entire I-11 corridor. While work is done on this project, the next project in the line, the Kingman I-11 & I-40 interchange is already under study and plan to finish their EIS in summer of 2013 be ready for detailed design and construction (pending funding). Smaller work, like replacing at-grade crossings with interchanges and frontage roads, should be packaged along with adjacent major work to reduce the number of times projects have to go out to bid and to consolidate design work. Design-build should be used throughout the project to speed things up (the only thing I don’t like about design build is that things get cut – a ramp from the D-street interchange on I-15 to 95 west was originally in the plans but was removed, and also a ramp from the frontage roads on I-15 to Blue Diamond east was planned but removed in design — both of which were useful to me in my travels).

The entire project, from Las Vegas to Phoenix can take 15 years instead of 30+ if we pipeline these projects together. When one project is in the design phase the next two are in EIS. We don’t need (and certainly won’t get given the current political climate) all 15 projects to start up at once to complete the entire shot in 5-7 years, nor do we need an abridgment of the EPA regulations, what we need is commitment from government and a funding schedule that is reliable. We need money to accomplish this (though I’m no help – I’ve paid $0 in gas taxes since I bought my Chevy Volt over three months ago, currently around 500MPG). We need $250M per year for the next 15 years to get I-11 substantially completed. We need the current Congress to approve this funding roadmap and commit to it, and for future Congresses to keep their damn dirty hands off it.

Good luck with that.