Business & Industry
Aug 1, 2017
THE NEW GOLD RUSH
The 21st century has set a new revolution into the energy industry, with the increasing use of Lithium to power almost everything in the world. What used to be an "ugly duck" in metal mining is now the star of the latest gold rush.
Until the late 20th century it was used mainly in the production of ceramics and glass and in greases for lubricating machine parts. By the end of the 20th century, professor and physicist John Bannister Goodenough identified and developed the Li-ion rechargeable battery which has changed the world of energy forever.
Today, the Lithium carbonate is the main power source for smartphones, tablets and all kinds of gadgets. But the real attraction for investors, nowadays, is the nascent electric and hybrid vehicle sector.
The emergence of companies like Tesla, and the increasing interest of other car brands in the development of alternative, non-polluting solutions has led to a real "gold rush" and boost the price of Lithium in international markets. Tesla itself has started to build its own Lithium battery factory which is expected to reach full capacity by 2018.
One of the best places in the world to extract Lithium are the vast salt flats of the Atacama desert, in Chile. It is a 600-mile-long strip between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. It is the world's driest non-polar desert, hostile to human life.
In this region, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, a salty solution, rich in Lithium, is pumped from deep beneath the desert into evaporation pools.
The result is a concentrated brine that is, then, driven in small trucks to processing plants on Chile's Coast. In these plants, this brine is refined into a powder and disposed in large white bags before being sent around the world.
Lithium has been described by many people as "white petroleum", and considered the best alternative to move the world away from its dependence on fossil fuels into a new era of battery-powered energy.
Global climate agreements, tightening fuel economy standards and China's attempt to stop its pollution crisis all point towards a future in which batteries will play an important role.
Lithium-based batteries are lighter, charge faster and are able to store more energy than traditional ones, making them a strong contender to replace gasoline as the primary source of transportation fuel. Plus, the size of the global Lithium market could triple by 2025, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs in December 2015.
The raw material is time-consuming to extract and refine, and other battery technologies that could displace Lithium in a decade or two are in development. But even sceptics admit the material will probably become increasingly important as electric vehicles move towards mass adoption. China, where the government has set an ownership target of five million battery-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles on the road by 2020, could alone reshape the demand curve.
For Peter Bruce, a professor at Oxford university, China will play a crucial role in driving down the cost of lithium-ion batteries as it steps up production of large-scale batteries for electricity storage, in the same way that Chinese supply helped bring down solar photovoltaic cell prices.
Under the salar, Chile has enough Lithium to supply the world for decades, but government quotas have failed to increase production even as demand has risen.
For Chile, this should be good news. It contains half of the world's most "economically extractable" reserves of the metal, and is the world's lowest-cost producer. For Lithium production, Chile is like the "ElDorado" of the 21st century.