- Chelsea Green Publishing - http://www.chelseagreen.com/blogs -

US Gov on natural resources: corporate secrets more important than informed citizenry

I saw this morning on BusinessWeek‘s GreenBiz [1] blog that the first Tesla “bat out of hell” electric roadster [2] has rolled off the production line. That got me thinking about what it would take to convert the entire US auto fleet to all electric, and what that would mean in terms of natural resource supplies: In particular, supplies of lithium, the key ingredient in Tesla’s batteries. What I wonder is, is there enough lithium to do the trick? At what point will we reach “peak lithium [3]” and run into a Limits-to-Growth [4] type limit? Well, according to the good folks at Wikipedia, “Lithium availability is a concern for a fleet of Li-ion battery using cars but world reserves are estimated as adequate for at least 50 years.” Wiki’s source [5] gives more detail, of course:

The Li-ion battery, LiC[6]/Li[x]NiO[2], is taken as the basis for the analysis presented here. It is shown that economically recoverable Li world reserves are sufficient to meet the demands of current new passenger car world production and its anticipated growth in the next 50 years. Currently identified world reserves can power 2 billion cars with Li-ion batteries, that is four times the number of cars presently registered in the world. World annual Li production of 10 000 metric tons would have to be increased 13-fold to power current new car world production with Li batteries. Such increase of the production capacity is seen as principally feasible…. A battery life of 1000 cycles, already demonstrated in laboratory cells, results in a total vehicle mileage of approximately 126 000 miles when based on a 24 kWh battery. The cost of battery ownership and ‘electric fuel’ combined is 11 [cents]/mile, that of car ownership and fuel combined 27 [cents]/mile, if based on a vehicle price of US$ 23 000.

Note that this report was published in 1996, before the explosion in lithium-battery based consumer electronics and laptop computers, etc., so that 50-year estimate might not hold so well anymore. There are a lot of economic assumptions necessary in any estimate like this, so it should be taken only as a very rough estimate, but there you have it. I’m in no position to offer an alternative estimate. And, of course, there are surely other forms of battery besides lithium that might come into heavy usage for electric cars. [5]

Anyhow, before I came across Wiki’s mention I tried looking up historical lithium production data on the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) website. They’ve got some data [6], but curiously, it is intentionally incomplete: “After 1954, world production does not include U.S. production.” Huh? A government agency, one of whose primary responsibilities is providing information to the citizenry and leadership on important issues of natural resource availability, intentionally hiding data? Here’s their excuse from another related document [pdf [7]]: “Because only one company produced lithium compounds from domestic resources, reported production and value of production data cannot be published” and elsewhere in a footnote “Withheld to avoid disclosing company proprietary data.” Proprietary data my arse. In my mind, the need for publicly available information trumps any one company’s desire for secrecy about its product. You want to have a monopoly, you owe something back for the privilege. Harumph.