lunes, 20 de abril de 2020

Lithium and the New Techno-economic Paradigm

Lithium Economics

Lithium and the New Techno-economic Paradigm
Originally published on Jan 08, 2008
Juan Carlos Zuleta*
Peak oil and climate change appear to signal the new turbulent days to come in the global economy. As a number of independent studies have recently argued, global oil production may have already peaked (or will do so in a couple of years). If this presumption is correct, oil production, which currently accounts for more than 43% of world energy consumption (and 95% of global energy used for transportation), will fall until all recoverable oil is exhausted within a few decades. Experts predict that currently known alternative sources of energy (e.g. ethanol, bio-diesel, biomass gas-to-liquid, coal gas-to-liquid, oil shale, and hydrogen) will make up for only a small part of the break between dwindling production and escalating demand. Insofar as global oil demand will continue to increase, a diminishing production may generate even higher energy prices, accompanied by inflation, unemployment, and eventually economic depression. 
To the extent that oil constitutes the main fuel of the global economy, its depletion could result in global economic catastrophe and population decline. In this context, not only oil-exporting countries may substantially reduce their sales abroad of the fuel, but also some of them may actually become net importers of it. According to a recent report by CIBC World Markets, rising oil consumption in Russia, Mexico and in several members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would reduce oil exports by as much as 2.5 million barrels a day by 2010, or nearly 3% of global oil demand. Similarly, The New York Times reported in December 2007 that this change of roles had already happened in Indonesia, will occur in Mexico within five years and could be followed later by Iran, the world´s fourth-largest producer of crude oil.
However, peak oil does not necessarily mean that the world is actually running out of all the fossil fuel. There are still plenty of non-conventional sources of oil (e.g. tar sands and heavy crude) to be discovered, extracted and processed, but they are much dirtier and more contaminant than conventional oil (and natural gas) and thus pose a major threat to society and the survival of the planet. As a new investigation indicates, after more than 200 years of continuous energy consumption in the world, carbon dioxide emissions (of which oil accounts for a substantial part) increased at 1.7 percent per year (about 20 fold). As a result, the average global temperature went up by 0.75 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, the warmest period occurring during the last decade or so. The implications of such development are enormous. They have manifested themselves essentially in terms of shifts in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events (e.g. storms, heat waves, cold spells, extreme precipitations, floods, hails and droughts) with high damage costs to society, both in the industrialized and the non-industrialized countries.
These two problems will force most countries to reduce both their demand for oil in response to an ever-diminishing supply and their carbon dioxide emissions to avoid global warming. This will only be possible through a major transformation in the global automotive industry: the transition to electric propulsion. Following General Motors´ announcement in January and June 2007, to launch by 2010 the first 60,000 mass-produced plugged-in hybrid cars with lithium-ion batteries, nowadays practically all major car producers in the world are engaged in a fierce competition for a share of this promising market. In this connection, lithium, a new advanced material with countless applications in different industrial sectors, may become a key factor for the emergence of a new techno-economic paradigm. The concept, coined by Carlota Perez back in the early 80s, refers to a series of fundamental changes in technology systems with far-reaching effects on the behavior of the entire economy. This type of technical change leads to the appearance of a new range of products, services, systems, and industries, affecting directly or indirectly almost every branch of the economy. It involves changes not only in engineering trajectories but also in input cost structure and conditions of production and distribution throughout the system. 
Five techno-economic paradigms have been identified in modern history: First, the industrial revolution, UK (1769-1830); second, the age of steam and railway, UK (1829-1873); third, the age of steel, electricity and heavy engineering, US and Germany to Europe (1875-1918); fourth, the age of oil, automobiles and mass production US to Europe(1908-1974); and fifth, the age of information and telecommunications, the US to Europe and Asia (1971-200??). To the extent that the main elements of each techno-economic paradigm arose in the previous one, it may be possible to identify the key features of future paradigms by looking at today´s infant industries. In this connection, some economists have recently indicated that the next techno-economic paradigm will have to do with the manipulation of organisms (and constituents thereof), information and materials through Nanotechnology, Biotechnology and Bioelectronics. This perhaps explains why the latest breakthrough in lithium-ion batteries, reported in the January 2008 issue of the scientific journal Nature, has come precisely from the field of Nanotechnology.
* Economist, M.Sc. in Agricultural and Applied Economics from the University of Minnesota and Ph.D. studies in Economics at the New School for Social Research.
Times Article Viewed: 7092 (Until June 30, 2019)

** On June 30, 2019, EV World was removed from the internet. 

Revisiting Peak Lithium or Lithium in Abundance?



Lithium Economics

Revisiting Peak Lithium or Lithium in Abundance?

By Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderón
Open Access Article Originally Published: June 24, 2008

Editor's Note: We continue to publish the responses of the three principals in the "how-much-lithium-is-there-really" debate in an effort to reach a consensus on the true nature of lithium availability since the automotive industry now appears to be putting many of its 'eggs' in the lithium-ion battery basket. We are certain that this isn't the end of the discussion.

As Mr. Evans suggests in his  Lithium Reserve Rebuttal, my preference for Don Garrett's figures was apparently not justified. In my defense, I can only say that this had to do with my limited understanding of a rather alien issue to my profession.

Nevertheless, after reading William Tahil's new version of " The Trouble with Lithium," including his latest estimates of lithium resources, recoverable reserves, and potential chemical-grade lithium carbonate production to 2020, doubt remains in my mind as to the real value of Evans' data. It seems like the 30-year old reserve numbers he refers to have been now seriously challenged. I suspect he will have to devote some time to respond to this new attack, although the battleground may no longer be only geological. It now appears to pertain also to mining.

Since I declare myself a neophyte on both subjects, for the time being, at least until Tahil's victims of his recent strike react, I shall refrain from making further comments on them. I do have to make one point though regarding Evans' comment on the USGS figure of current demand for lithium. He says that this number "includes the tonnages of lithium contained in ores and ore concentrates sold to the glass and ceramic industries and thus nothing to do with chemical demand". If that is the case, I wonder why in the abstract of his paper he specifically compares this figure with both total reserves of lithium equivalent (or lithium carbonate) and total lithium reserves (or lithium carbonate) at active or proposed operations, including, in each case, lithium from ores, brines and hectorites. To be correct, therefore, Evans might well have compared his 16,000 tonnes Li with 20.1 million tonnes of lithium equivalent (approximately 152 million tonnes of lithium carbonate) to be extracted from brines and hectorites only.

One last comment concerns Evans' agreement with the two caveats in Tahil's approach I advanced in my paper. Here he erroneously refers to "other correspondents" as having made the point that adoption of lithium batteries will be gradual and that major battery breakthroughs could result in less use of lithium and thereby lighter batteries.

In his new version of "The Trouble with Lithium", Tahil refers only once to my article to put Bolivia's intention to produce 1,000 tons of lithium per month beginning 2013 into question and not precisely to respond to my comments. However, in an email sent to Bill Moore, others, and me on June 15, 2008, he makes clear that 1.4kg of lithium carbonate is required per kWh battery capacity and that the claim that either 0.43 or 0.46 kg of lithium carbonate per kWh is sufficient assumes an unachievable (83%) efficiency level and for that reason "is a canard". Thus here he touches, albeit slightly, my second point of criticism and gives me the opportunity to respond. But before I proceed to do so, let me return first to Tahil`s new reserves estimates which I found to be astonishing, to say the least.

In sum, he claims that a "more thorough consideration of the Salar de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni shows that global recoverable lithium reserves are only in the order of 4 million tonnes". This estimation of reserves lowers previously known figures substantially. This is most evident in the case of Atacama where USGS reserve base [1] and USGS reserves [2] numbers are reduced from 3MT down to 1MT of lithium content. Tahil here seems to suggest that what the USGS calls reserve base and/or reserves in Salar de Atacama, should be taken as resources [3].

Furthermore, in page 18 of his paper, Tahil defines resources as "the amount of metal claimed to be geologically present", and reserves as "how much of that resources in place one can realistically extract and produce". I wonder what the USGS has to say about these "new" definitions.
Tahil then follows the same approach to lower the reserve base of the Salar de Uyuni. He argues that the figures stated by Evans (5.5MT), Bolivian and other sources (9MT) or the USGS (5.4MT) correspond to "the total Lithium metal resource estimated to be contained in the Salar, not recoverable reserves". After explaining why the Salar de Uyuni, while being the largest single deposit of lithium in absolute size, is not the largest deposit of lithium in the world in terms of its economically recoverable lithium content, Tahil concludes that "the real exploitable reserve is therefore only in the order of 300,000 tonnes of Lithium, not several million tonnes".

The following factors describe Tahil's argument. First, the Salar de Uyuni has a high Mg: Li of 18.6:1, three times higher than the Salar de Atacama, which makes it more difficult to produce lithium.

Second, the concentration of lithium varies extensively in different parts of the salt lake and the area of highest lithium density (above 1000ppm) is a small area (280km2) in the southeast where the Rio Grande enters the salar, whereas the central halite (i.e. rock salt) nucleus of the Salar de Atacama is 1000-1400 km2 in area.

Third, the solar evaporation at Uyuni is 1,500mm per year, less than 50% of the rate at the Salar de Atacama, which again makes the extraction and production of lithium more costly.

And fourth, because the brine containing the halite layer of lithium in the Salar de Uyuni is "only 11 meters thick at the thickest point and only 2 m to 5 m thick in the area of high lithium concentration," rather than 35 meters as in the Salar de Atacama, the amount "of lithium available per unit of surface area is much lower" and a much larger area is required "to be exploited for an equivalent lithium production".

Based on the above considerations, Tahil sustains that "it is highly unlikely that anything like 60,000 tpy of LCE will be produced from the Salar de Uyuni in 2013" and that "a more realistic assessment might be 10,000tpy by 2015 and 30,000 tpy by 2020". To the extent that this contention questions severely the recently announced Uyuni project, I encourage the Bolivian authorities in charge of such a crucial endeavor not only for the country but for the whole world to respond in due course.

Tahil has again surprised the world. But there is still some reason to believe that his predictions should be taken with caution. This leads me once more to my two original criticisms of "The Trouble with Lithium", version 1 which appear to be relevant for version 2 as well.

To begin with, Tahil attacks lithium battery technology suggesting instead other batteries (i.e. ZnAir and Zebra NaNiCl / NaFeCl) as a more viable solution for the transition to electric propulsion in the global automotive industry, one of his arguments being that if lithium carbonate demand from the portable electronic sector maintains its current high growth rates during the next ten years, intense competition will arise between this sector and the automotive industry for supply of LiIon batteries. In my opinion, this conflict will have to be resolved in the market place. Given the importance of the automotive industry in the global economy, the dispute for lithium batteries is likely to be resolved in favor of this industry.

In this sense, the electronic sector may have to take recourse to the kind of batteries that Tahil is pushing so hard to be used for electric vehicles until the supposed shortage of lithium is taken care of with the aid of course of technological development. If those batteries are so good, then why cannot they be commercialized first in the electronic sector? Besides, as I mentioned in my original paper, during the transition to electric propulsion lithium will not be alone in powering the new green cars; many old batteries are and will still be viable options and many more will appear to face this challenge. 

Some of my commentators have even suggested that we probably should not be so sanguine about the absolute disappearance from the face of Earth of all gasoline or diesel vehicles (particularly trucks) in the next decade or so, as Tahil seems to suggest. In this context, I have argued that lithium will take over the energy market only gradually in the course of the next 20 years or so as a key factor of the new techno-economic paradigm in the world; until then, many energy technologies will co-exist. So in a way, Tahil appears to completely miss the technology picture here.

This sends me directly to my second criticism of Tahil, namely that as major battery technology breakthroughs are accomplished less and less lithium will be required for powering electric vehicles. As I mentioned above, Tahil has argued that current lithium batteries require 1.4 kg of LCE per 1kWh. This is based on his own presupposition that, "as a rule, rechargeable batteries realize about 25% of the anode`s theoretical capacity …".

Hence "any battery company that claims [it] can realize 83% of the electrochemical equivalent of Lithium [has] made a stunning breakthrough which should already have made headlines worldwide". But lithium battery technology breakthroughs have already come and will be coming, especially from the field of Nanotechnology. In fact, researchers at MIT have recently reported that using specialized nanowires in a lithium-ion battery can increase two or three times its energy density and just a few months ago another different group of researchers at Stanford have discovered that nanowires can hold ten times the charge of existing lithium-ion batteries). I can only hope that these breakthroughs will tend to reduce the amount of lithium required per kWh of battery capacity.

One last point I want to make in this rejoinder concerns the main factors that in my view may determine the final adoption of lithium batteries in electric cars. In economics jargon, this relates to the sources of technical change or technological innovation. It goes without saying that the three factors I identify and explain below can only be taken as part of a longer list in process of elaboration.

In this sense, the first factor is, of course, the market. The currently high levels of oil prices clearly explain why more and more consumers are willing to switch to hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars.

Technological development constitutes the second factor. Here we need to look at the  recent advances in lithium battery technology, such as the ones reported by General Motors and Nissan

Finally, the third factor is perhaps the most complex one. It has to do with resistance to technical change. In this case, I refer to governments, companies, and individuals with vested interests to prevent the emergence of lithium battery technologies mainly because this will put at serious risk their current or future privileges or advantages. I let the reader decide which governments, companies, and individuals I am talking about here and whether they will be strong enough to stop the transition to electric propulsion with lithium batteries in the global automotive industry.


[1] That part of an identified resource that meets specified minimum physical and chemical criteria related to current mining and production practices, including those for grade, quality, thickness, and depth. It is the in-place demonstrated (measured plus indicated) resource from which reserves are estimated. It may encompass those parts of the resources that have a reasonable potential for becoming economically available within planning horizons beyond those that assume proven technology and current economics. It includes those resources that are currently economic (reserves), marginally economic (marginal reserves), and some of those that are currently subeconomic (subeconomic resources). The term "geologic reserve" has been applied by others generally to the reserve-base category, but it also may include the inferred-reserve-base category; it is not part of this classification system.

[2] That part of the reserve base which could be economically extracted or produced at the time of determination. The term reserves need not signify that extraction facilities are in place and operative. Reserves include only recoverable materials; thus, terms such as "extractable reserves" and "recoverable reserves" are redundant and are not part of this classification system.

[3] A concentration of naturally occurring solid, liquid, or gaseous material in or on the Earth's crust in such form and amount that economic extraction of a commodity from concentration is currently or potentially feasible. 

Also, see all USGS definitions.

Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderón is an Bolivian economist, specialist in lithium trade.  ( 

Times Article Viewed: 28092 (Until June 30, 2019)

** On June 30, 2019, EV World was removed from the internet. 

Peak Lithium or Lithium in Abundance?

(Originally) Published: 22-May-2008

Peak Lithium or Lithium in Abundance?

The debate on the future availability of lithium appears far from settled.

By Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderón

A recent controversy has arisen around the availability of lithium for the apparently irreversible transition to electric propulsion in the global automobile industry. 

Beginning January 2007, that is since William Tahil´s white paper “The Trouble with Lithium” was first posted on the web, a growing number of analysts began to conjecture about the real possibility of substituting oil in car transport. Tahil´s main contention was that Li-ion batteries – that is, state-of-the-world battery technology at the time - may not be sustainable for Electric Vehicle (EV) applications and that it was crucial to turning instead to ZnAir and Zebra NaNiCl / NaFeCl battery technologies to meet “the urgent need to reduce the consumption of oil immediately at all costs or face the consequences of a meltdown in civilization”.

Notwithstanding Tahil´s persuasive arguments, in the last 15 months or so practically all global vehicle producers as well as start-up smaller firms have continued to incorporate lithium into their plans to develop the best battery technology to power the plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars of the near future, and little has been reported in terms of major advances of the two batteries mentioned by Tahil.

According to a recent story on News Trends, published from Russia, Toyota Corporation appears to be, in fact, interested in developing Zinc Air batteries for use in hybrid technology, but the implementation of this project may have to wait until 2020.

From a different vein, Keith Evans in his March 2008 article “Lithium in Abundance”, also disseminated through the web, has argued that “concerns regarding lithium availability for hybrid or electric vehicle batteries or other foreseeable applications are unfounded”. This is based on his report that “lists a total of 28.5 million tonnes of lithium equivalent to nearly 150 million tonnes of lithium carbonate – equal to 1775 years of supply at the current rate of demand (approximately 16,000 tpa Li). Lithium in pegmatites, continental brines, geothermal brines, oilfield brines and hectorites total 7.6 million, 17.7 million, 0.3 million, 0.75 million and 2.0 million tonnes respectively”.

In his comment on Evans´ article, Tahil has argued that “claiming 30M tonnes of lithium is exactly the same as claiming trillions of barrels of oil in shales and tar sands. It is irrelevant”. Furthermore, these numbers are not consistent with a rather more updated, detailed and documented account of geological reserves of lithium included in a 2004 specialized book (See Donald E. Garrett, “Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium Chloride”, Academic Press, 2004 – I am indebted to William Tahil for this reference) which concludes that there are only around 14,7 million tonnes of lithium in brine deposits and around 1,6 million tonnes of the metal in ore deposits, totaling 16,3 million tonnes of lithium in the world.

Interestingly enough, both Evans´ and Garrett´s estimates of lithium reserves in the Salar of Atacama (Chile), where most world production comes from nowadays, are considerably larger than the figures that the U.S. Geological Service has been reporting for the last 15 years or so, showing that as production takes off, reserves tend to increase because production operators both become more knowledgeable of the existing reserves and face more incentives to explore new fields. In addition, following the U.S. Geological Service, the current world demand for lithium is not 16,000 tpa, but 25,000 tpa.
This evidence appears to give more support to Tahil than to Evans. However, there are at least two caveats in Tahil´s approach.

First, the substitution of the global automotive parc will take some time. For one thing, Clean Air Acts signed in 14 states of the U.S. are not as ambitious. It will take years before the complete fleet of new cars put into the market is replaced by some sort of lithium-powered electric vehicles. For another, high oil prices are an incentive to look for new alternative sources of energy. So lithium will not be alone in this race. Alternative sources of energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal, compressed air, etc. energy will also prevent a “once-and-for-all” adoption of lithium batteries. In this connection, a transition to electric propulsion will most likely take place gradually during the next 20 years or so.

Within this time frame, lithium reserves are likely to augment not only because some new (untapped) fields (e.g. Salar of Uyuni, Bolivia) will be put into production, but also due to high lithium prices resulting from an ever-increasing demand for the metal. Efforts made by Project Better Place, for instance, to completely electrify both Israel´s and Denmark´s new automotive fleets by 2011 or 2012 or even Nissan´s announcement to introduce electric cars into the US market in 2010 are only an indication of what lies ahead in the near future but not necessarily a clear signal of an immediate interruption of oil demand in favor of lithium. Besides, not all major car producers will be engaged in an all-electric endeavor; indeed, most of them, including General Motors, are pointing to plug-in hybrids whose demand for lithium is most likely to be relatively smaller than that of electric cars.

Somewhat surprisingly, according to Nissan Motor Co. Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn, even the EVs to be produced by this global car manufacturer “will always have the possibility of having a range extender”, namely “a gas-powered engine that recharges the battery and keeps the vehicle moving after the initial plug-in charge expires” (See Nissan May Offer 'Range-Extended Electric Car, WSJ, 16 March 2008). So concerns about the unavailability of lithium for the transition to electric propulsion at this point seem a little odd. 

Second, major battery breakthroughs may have been (and will likely continue to be) made, for example, in the field of Nanotechnology which could result in less use of lithium and thereby lighter batteries. In other words, as technology progresses less and less lithium will be required to power electric vehicles. So, again, this also undermines the argument that the world would be facing a “peak lithium” even before the lithium era has been inaugurated.

In this context, in a comment on Bill Moore´s article “Lithium in Abundance” dated April 17, 2008, I had argued that it all now indicates that we are at the advent of the lithium era (See my April 2008 EVWorld blog) or a new ´techno-economic paradigm´ (the sixth one since the industrial revolution - See my January EVWorld blog) with lithium as its key factor. In effect, the three conditions for a key factor (such as ´oil´ in the fourth techno-economic paradigm and ´microchips´ in the fifth) suggested by Christopher Freeman and Carlota Perez already in 1988 in a path-breaking book on technical change and economic theory are now more likely to be fulfilled, namely: 
(i) clearly perceived low and rapidly falling relative cost;
(ii) apparently almost unlimited availability of supply over long periods; and
(iii) clear potential for the use or incorporation of the new key factor in many products and processes throughout the economic system.
Reasons of space prevented me from elaborating a bit more on this argument. I now take the opportunity to do so. 

To begin with, as I was writing the comment, I thought we were at the advent of the lithium era or a techno-economic paradigm with lithium as its key factor because the government of Bolivia had decided a few days earlier to start exploiting the planet´s largest reserves of lithium located in the Salar of Uyuni (Ibid). In my view, this was a crucial decision, one which in the coming years may shape the technological development of one of the most dynamic industries of the world economy: the automotive industry.

Over a year ago, Tahil himself was rather skeptical about this possibility, arguing that: “In the current climate, the Bolivian government may not permit the wholesale industrialization of the Uyuni salt flats, a unique and ancient ecosystem, just to provide motive power to the developed world”.

Although it is too early to jump to any conclusions as to how successful the Bolivian government will be in its effort to go alone in this endeavor, that is, without any private (either local or foreign) interests, the truth of the matter is that, against all odds, the Government has been able to put together a plan to industrialize the Uyuni salt fields, which, among other things, calls for a production of 1,000 tonnes a month of lithium metal equivalent beginning 2013.

I will refrain at this point from making any comment on the timing and/or the magnitude and relevance of the Bolivian plan. These important topics will be part of another essay I intend to work on next.
For the time being and from all the arguments stated above, it is clear that Bolivia´s incursion into the lithium market will contribute to fulfilling conditions (i) and (ii) for lithium to become a key factor of the new techno-economic paradigm.

As for condition (iii), it is also evident that the current list of lithium applications is large and tends to increase: (a) in ceramic glasses to improve resistance to extreme temperature changes; (b) to lower process melting points, and as a glazing agent, in ceramic (frits) and glass manufacturing; (c) to lower the melting point of the cryolic bath in primary aluminium production; (d) as a catalyst in the production of synthetic rubber, plastics and pharmaceutical productos; (e) as a reduction agent in the synthesis of many organic compounds; (f) in specialty lubricants and greases used for working in extreme temperature and change conditions; (g) in the production of both primary and secondary batteries; (h) in air conditioning and dehumidification systems; (i) in aluminium-lithium alloys in aircraft production; (j) as an addition to cement as a way of preventing concrete cancer; (k) as carbon dioxide absorption; and (l) in desinfecting water (See Evensperger et al, “The lithium industry: Its recent evolution and future prospects”, 2006, on the web). 

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* On June 30, 2019, EV World was removed from the internet. 

sábado, 18 de abril de 2020

Lithium and the End of the Technological Lag

Lithium Economics

 Oct 09, 2007 (Original publication date)
Lithium and the End of the Technological Lag
Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderón*
Translated from La Razón (, first published on September 18, 2007
Between 1989 and 1993, the debate around a concession of the lithium reserves of the salt lake of Uyuni to FMC Corporation occupied the first pages of Bolivian newspapers. Many politicians were extremely upset when on January 15, 1993 FMC decided to withdraw from Bolivia and choose instead much smaller deposits in Argentina. The supposed “lithium failure” has since been used as a bad example of negotiation with foreign investors in the country.  

However, in a long article and interviews published in the main newspapers at the time, a few days before the American transnational communicated its determination, the author of this article argued that the causes of FMC´s decision had to do more with the intricacies of the lithium market than with the contradictions and errors in the process of negotiation with FMC.  

In this context, the downward trend of lithium for the following years would have been primarily related to General Motors`decision in December 1992 to postpone its initial strategic plans to introduce the first line of mass production electric vehicles into the market by mid-1990s mainly due to budget limitations and restructuring derived from the economic recession that the US was facing at the time.  This would have generated a “technological lag” that could last 20 or 30 years.

With the recent announcement of the General Motors, reported by The Economist on June 16, 2007, to use lithium-ion batteries to activate its next Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid with a maximum range in all-electric mode, to be launched at the market in 2010, it all indicates that the world would be near the end of the technological lag forecast by this author more than 14 years ago.  

Likewise, in accordance with another forecast made at the beginning of 1993, there is evidence that between 1990 and 2006 lithium production rose only moderately.  However, following the prestigious Meridian International Research of France, this could be definitely reversed; the global automotive industry would be just about to face the greatest challenge of its history: the transition towards electric propulsion. 

Two demands of the world would have influenced in this decision: (1) that the demand for oil should be reduced significantly in the next 10 years following a diminution of supply; and (2) that CO2 emissions should be reduced to avoid global warming.  

In recent years, lithium-ion battery technology has appeared as an important alternative to the rest of the advanced batteries that have been in the market during the last two decades.  At present, that technology constitutes the only option for a viable activation of the electric vehicles in the United States.  In addition, research carried out in the rest of the world is focused almost completely on lithium-ion.  One advantage of lithium over oil and other sources of energy is, of course, that this metal is recyclable.  

As is well known, electric cars are no longer a story of science fiction and have begun to circulate both in the highways of US and Europe captivating people´s imagination and taste.  In the current conditions of the available supply, the increase in the demand for lithium in the world could produce a significant rise in the price of the strategic material, making feasible the exploitation of the reserves of the Salt Lake of Uyuni in Potosí, Bolivia.  

At lithium prices corresponding to 1998 (i.e. $us 95,44 the kilogram of metallic content), last available data in the US Geological Service, the 5,4 million metric tons of metallic content of existing reserves in the highest "salt sea" of the planet would amount to more than US$ 515 billion. 

Finally, according to the above cited source of information, this would convert Bolivia into the new Saudi Arabia of the world that could play a leading role in power relations with enormous geopolitical implications for the country and the region.

*Juan Carlos Zuleta C.
Economist, M.Sc. in Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Minnesota and Ph.D. studies in Economics at the New School for Social Research
Times Article Viewed: 4148 (until June 30, 2019)

** On June 30, 2019, EV World was removed from the internet. 

martes, 6 de diciembre de 2011

Reevaluando ¿El pico del litio o el litio en abundancia?

Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderón *

Patria Grande

3 de julio de 2008

Nota del Editor.- La controversia sobre el litio data de enero de 2007, es decir desde cuando William Tahil, Director del Meridian International Research de Francia publicó "El problema con el litio"[1]. En ese aporte, Tahil alarmó al mundo en torno a la supuesta escasez de litio que podría dar lugar a un pico del litio aun antes de que se iniciara la era del metal. Esta posición fue criticada en marzo de 2008 por Keith Evans, un prestigioso geólogo con más de 30 años de experiencia en el campo, a través del artículo "Una abundancia de litio"[2]. En la edición de junio de "Patria Grande", Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderón estableció algunos puntos de desencuentro con Evans y Tahil, los cuales fueron parcialmente refutados por estos autores en sus recientes artículos "Lithium Reserve Rebuttal" y "The Trouble with Lithium 2 - Under the Microscope". En el presente trabajo, el autor responde nuevamente a Evans y Tahil.

Tal como el Sr. Evans[3] sugiere, mi preferencia por las cifras de Don Garrett no estaba aparentemente justificada. En mi defensa sólo puedo decir que esto tuvo que ver con mi limitado entendimiento de un tema más bien ajeno a mi profesión. En todo caso, luego de leer la nueva versión de “El problema con el litio” de William Tahil[4] que incluye sus más recientes estimaciones de recursos de litio, reservas recuperables y carbonato de litio de grado químico potencial hasta 2020, me asalta una duda respecto al verdadero valor de los datos de Evans. Parecería que las cifras de reservas de hace 30 años a las que hace referencia habrían sido ahora seriamente cuestionadas. Sospecho que tendrá que dedicar algún tiempo a responder a este nuevo ataque, aunque el campo de batalla podría no ser solamente geológico. Todo indica ahora que éste se relaciona también con la temática minera. En la medida en que me declaro un neófito en ambas materias, por el momento, al menos hasta que las víctimas de Tahil reaccionen de su reciente golpe, renunciaré a hacer mayores comentarios sobre ellas. Sí debo puntualizar algo, sin embargo, respecto a la cifra de demanda actual de litio proveniente del Servicio Geológico de los Estados Unidos (SGEU). Evans sostiene que este dato “incluye los tonelajes de litio contenido en yacimientos y concentrados de yacimientos vendidos a las industrias del vidrio y la cerámica y por tanto no tiene nada que ver con la demanda química”.

Si es así, me pregunto por qué en el resumen de su trabajo él compara específicamente este dato con las reservas totales de litio equivalente (o carbonato de litio), así como con las reservas totales de litio (o carbonato de litio) en operaciones activas o propuestas, incluyendo en cada caso el litio proveniente de yacimientos mineralizados, salmueras y hectoritas. Para ser correcto, en consecuencia, Evans podría haber comparado sus 16.000 toneladas de litio con los 20.1 millones de toneladas de litio equivalente (aproximadamente 152 millones de toneladas de carbonato de litio) a ser extraídos solamente de salmueras y hectoritas. Un último comentario concierne al acuerdo de Evans con las dos deficiencias en el enfoque de Tahil que identifiqué en mi anterior artículo titulado “El pico del litio o el litio en abundancia” (Véase Aquí, él erróneamente se refiere a “otros comentaristas” como los autores de la idea de que la adopción de baterías de litio será gradual y que los grandes descubrimientos de baterías podrían resultar en un menor uso del litio y por tanto en baterías más livianas.
En su nueva versión de “El problema con el litio”, Tahil se refiere solamente una vez a mi artículo para poner en duda la intención de Bolivia de producir 1.000 toneladas de litio por mes empezando en 2013 y no precisamente para responder a mis comentarios. Sin embargo, en un correo electrónico enviado a Bill Moore (el editor de, a otros y a mí el 15 de junio de 2008, enfatiza que se requiere 1,4 kg de carbonato de litio por cada kWh de capacidad de batería y que la noción de que 0,44 ó 0,46 kg de carbonato de litio por kWH es suficiente asume un nivel de eficiencia (83%) inalcanzable y que por esa razón “constituye una falsedad”. Por tanto, Tahil toca aquí, aunque levemente, mi segundo punto de crítica y me da la oportunidad de responder. Pero, antes de proceder a hacerlo, permítame el lector regresar primero a las nuevas estimaciones de reservas de Tahil que me han parecido realmente asombrosas.

En suma, él argumenta que una “consideración más cuidadosa del Salar de Atacama y el Salar de Uyuni muestra que las reservas recuperables de litio del mundo se encuentran solamente en el orden de los 4 millones de toneladas”. Esta estimación de reservas disminuye substancialmente las cifras previamente conocidas. Esto se hace más evidente en el caso de Atacama donde las cifras de reservas base[5] y reservas[6] proporcionadas por el SGEU son reducidas de 3 millones de toneladas a 1 millón de toneladas de contenido de litio. Tahil aquí parece sugerir que lo que el SGEU denomina reserva base y/o reservas en el Salar de Atacama, debería considerarse como recursos[7].
Es más, en la página 18 de su artículo, Tahil define recursos como “la cantidad de metal que se establece que está geológicamente presente” y reservas como “cuánto de esos recursos en el sitio puede uno realísticamente extraer y producir”. Me pregunto qué tendrá que decir el SGEU acerca de estas “nuevas” definiciones.

Tahil luego sigue el mismo enfoque para bajar la reserva base del Salar de Uyuni. Él argumenta que las cifras establecidas por Evans (5,5MT), fuentes bolivianas y otras (9MT) o el SGEU (5,4MT) corresponden “al recurso total de metal de litio que se estima que contiene el Salar, no reservas recuperables”. Luego de explicar por qué el Salar de Uyuni, a pesar de ser el depósito de litio más grande en tamaño absoluto, no es el depósito más grande de litio en el mundo en términos de su contenido de litio económicamente recuperable, Tahil concluye que “la reserva real explotable está por tanto en el orden de 300,000 toneladas de litio, no varios millones de toneladas”. Los siguientes factores describen el argumento de Tahil. Primero, el Salar de Uyuni tiene una alta relación Magnesio-Litio de 18.6 a 1, tres veces más que el Salar de Atacama, lo que hace más difícil la producción de litio. Segundo, la concentración de litio varía extensamente en diferentes partes del lago de sal y el área de densidad más alta de litio (por encima de 1.000ppm) constituye una pequeña superficie (280Km2) en el sudeste donde el Río Grande penetra el salar, mientras que el núcleo central de halite (i.e. roca de sal) del Salar de Atacama es 1.000-1.400 Km2 en área. Tercero, la evaporación solar en Uyuni es 1.500 mm por año, menos del 50% de la tasa en el Salar de Atacama, lo que nuevamente hace que la extracción y producción de litio sea más costosa. Y cuarto, debido a que la salmuera que contiene la capa de halite de litio en el Salar de Uyuni “es solamente 11 metros espesa en el lugar de mayor espesor y solamente 2 metros a 5 metros espesa en el área de mayor concentración de litio” en lugar de 35 metros como en el Salar de Atacama, la cantidad “de litio disponible por unidad de superficie es mucho más baja” y se requiere “un área a ser explotada mucho mayor para una producción de litio equivalente”.

Con base en las anteriores consideraciones, Tahil sostiene que “es altamente improbable que nada que se parezca a 60.000 toneladas por año de carbonato de litio equivalente será producido del Salar Uyuni en 2013” y que “una estimación más realista sería 10.000 toneladas por año a partir del 2015 y 30.000 toneladas por año en el 2020”. Toda vez que esta argumentación cuestiona severamente el proyecto de Uyuni recientemente anunciado, aliento a las autoridades bolivianas a cargo de un emprendimiento tan crucial no sólo para el país sino para el mundo entero a responder cuanto antes.
Tahil nuevamente ha sorprendido al mundo. Pero existe todavía alguna razón para creer que sus predicciones deben ser tomadas con precaución. Esto me dirige otra vez a mis dos críticas originales de la versión 1 de “El problema con el litio” que parecen ser también relevantes para la versión 2 del artículo.

Para empezar, Tahil ataca la tecnología de baterías de litio sugiriendo en cambio otras baterías (i.e. ZnAir and Zebra NaNiCl / NaFeCl) como una solución más viable para la transición hacia la propulsión eléctrica en la industria automotriz global, siendo uno de sus argumentos que si la demanda de carbonato de litio desde el sector de electrónicos portátiles mantiene sus actuales tasas altas de crecimiento durante los próximos diez años, se presentará un intensa competencia entre este sector y la industria automotriz por la provisión de baterías de litio. En mi opinión, este conflicto tendrá que ser resuelto en el lugar del mercado. Dada la importancia de la industria automotriz en la economía global, es probable que la disputa por baterías de litio se resuelva a favor de esta industria.

En este sentido, el sector electrónico podría tener que recurrir a la clase de baterías que Tahil ha venido apoyando con tanto ahínco para los vehículos eléctricos hasta que se pueda abordar la supuesta escasez de litio con la ayuda -por supuesto- del desarrollo tecnológico. Si aquellas baterías son tan buenas, ¿por qué entonces no se pueden comercializar primero en el sector electrónico? Además, tal como mencioné en mi artículo original, durante la transición hacia la propulsión eléctrica el litio no estará solo en la energización de los nuevos “carros verdes”; muchas baterías antiguas son y todavía serán opciones viables y muchas más aparecerán para enfrentar este desafío. Algunos de mis comentaristas han sugerido incluso que probablemente no deberíamos ser tan optimistas acerca de la desaparición absoluta de la faz de la tierra de todos los vehículos a gasolina y a diesel (especialmente camiones) en la próxima década o algo parecido, tal como Tahil parece insinuar. En este contexto, he argumentado que el litio tomará control del mercado de la energía solamente de una manera gradual en el curso de los próximos 20 años más o menos como un factor clave del nuevo paradigma tecno-económico en el mundo; hasta entonces muchas tecnologías de energía coexistirán. Por tanto, de alguna manera, Tahil parece perderse aquí completamente la película de la tecnología.

Esto me manda directamente a mi segunda crítica de Tahil, vale decir que a medida que se produzcan significativos avances en las tecnologías de baterías se requerirá una cantidad cada vez menor de litio para activar vehículos eléctricos. Tal como mencioné más arriba, Tahil ha argumentado que las actuales baterías de litio requieren 1,4 kg de carbonato de litio equivalente por 1kWh. Esto está basado en su propio supuesto de que “como regla, las baterías recargables obtienen cerca del 25% de la capacidad teórica del ánodo …”. En consecuencia, cualquier compañía de baterías que sostenga que puede obtener un 83% del equivalente electroquímico de litio ha hecho un deslumbrante descubrimiento que debería haber producido titulares en todo el mundo”. Pero, los descubrimientos tecnológicos de las tecnologías de baterías ya han llegado y seguirán llegando, especialmente desde el campo de la Nanotecnología. En efecto, investigadores del Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) han reportado recientemente que usando “nanocables” (nanowires) en una batería de ión litio pueden incrementar dos o tres veces su densidad energética (Véase y hace sólo unos cuantos meses otro grupo de investigadores en Stanford han descubierto que los “nanocables” pueden mantener 10 veces la carga de las actuales baterías de ión litio (Véase Sólo me queda esperar que estos avances tecnológicos tiendan a reducir la cantidad de litio por kWh de capacidad de batería requerida.

Un último punto que deseo enfatizar en esta reevaluación se refiere a los principales factores que en mi opinión podrían determinar la adopción final de baterías de litio en carros eléctricos. En la jerga económica, esto se relaciona con las fuentes del cambio técnico o la innovación tecnológica. Resulta por demás decir que los tres factores que identifico y explico más abajo sólo pueden tomarse como parte de una lista más larga en proceso de elaboración. En este sentido, el primer factor es, por supuesto, el mercado. Los actuales niveles elevados de los precios del petróleo explican claramente por qué más y más consumidores están dispuestos a adoptar carros híbridos, híbridos enchufables y completamente eléctricos. El desarrollo tecnológico constituye el segundo factor. Aquí necesitamos considerar los recientes avances en la tecnología de baterías de litio tales como los reportados por la General Motors (Véase y la Nissan (Véase

Finalmente, el tercer factor es tal vez el más complejo de los tres. Tiene que ver con la resistencia al cambio técnico. En este caso, me refiero a los gobiernos, compañías e individuos con intereses creados para evitar el surgimiento de las tecnologías de baterías de litio principalmente debido a que esto podría poner en serio riesgo sus privilegios o ventajas actuales o futuras. Dejo al lector decidir de cuáles gobiernos, compañías e individuos estoy hablando aquí y si ellos serán lo suficientemente fuertes como para interrumpir la transición hacia la propulsión eléctrica con baterías de litio en la industria automotriz global.

* Este artículo es una traducción al español de la versión original en inglés publicada el 24 de junio de 2008 en
** Economista, para cualquier comentario dirigirse a:

[1] Véase William Tahil, "The Trouble with Lithium", ("El problema con el litio"), Meridian International Research, enero 2007, disponible en:

[2] Véase Keith Evans, "An Abundance of Lithium", ("Una abundancia de litio") marzo 2008, disponible en:, se publicará en la edición de julio de la prestigiosa revista "Industrial Minerals" del Reino Unido.

[3] Véase Keith Evans, "Lithium Reserve Rebuttal", ("Refutación sobre las reservas de litiio"), publicado en, el 13 de junio de 2008.

[4] Véase William Tahil, "The Trouble with Lithium 2 - Under the Microscope", ("El problema con el litio 2 - Bajo el microscopio"), Meridian International Research, 29 de mayo de 2008, disponible en:

[5] Aquella parte de un recurso identificado que cumple criterios físicos y químicos específicos mínimos relacionados con prácticas mineras y de producción actuales, incluyendo aquellas sobre grado, calidad, espesor y profundidad. Constituye el recurso (medido e indicado) en el sitio del cual se estiman las reservas. Podría comprender aquellas partes de los recursos que tienen un potencial razonable para volverse económicamente disponibles dentro de horizontes de planificación más allá de aquellos que asumen la tecnología probada y la economía actual. Incluye aquellos recursos que son actualmente económicos (reservas), marginalmente económicos (reservas marginales) y algunos de aquellos que actualmente son subeconómicos (recursos subeconómicos). El término “reserva geológica” ha sido aplicado por otros a la categoría de reserva base, pero éste podría incluir la categoría de reserva base inferida; por lo que no es parte de este sistema de clasificación (Véase

[6] Aquella parte de la reserva base que podría ser económicamente extraída o producida en el momento de su determinación. El término reservas no necesariamente significa que las facilidades de extracción están dadas y son operativas. Las reservas incluyen solamente materiales recuperables; por tanto, términos tales como “reservas extractables” y “reservas recuperables” son redundantes y no son pare de este sistema de clasificación (Véase

[7] Una concentración de materiales sólidos, líquidos o gaseosos que ocurre de manera natural en o sobre la costra terrestre en tal forma y cantidad que la extracción económica de una mercancía es actualmente o potencialmente factible (Véase