September 29, 2009

Lithium: Not Just a Nirvana Song

The Natural Security team has been very interested in critical minerals recently, and in the months to come we’re planning to look deeper into how minerals relate to U.S. national security. As part of our exploration, and hopefully because it informs blog readers like yourself, we will periodically take a good hard look at a particular mineral and issues related to its use and extraction. This week’s mineral of choice is lithium.

Lithium is the lightest metal in nature and an excellent conductor of electricity, and these two properties make it especially useful for batteries. In the past, lithium was used most commonly in glass, ceramics, and pharmaceuticals, but its use in batteries has taken a huge jump in recent years. Currently, 25% of mined lithium is used to produce batteries commonly found in portable electronics and hybrid cars. In fact, The New York Times reports that the hybrid automobile market is likely to generate most of the demand for lithium in the near- to mid-term. The high oil prices in 2008 raised the profile of hybrid cars, which in turn raised lithium’s profile in the automotive industry.

But the defense industry is paying attention to lithium as well. One 2007 report by the Defense Logistics Agency referred to lithium batteries as a “critical go-to-war item” (pdf) and recommended expanding the number of vendors to avoid supply disruptions.

Lithium seems to have bright prospects in automotive manufacturing, along with its use in tech and communication devices that are a major part of modern life as well as modern warfare. Therefore, DoD is probably not the only organization worried about supply chain security. This prompts several important questions about lithium. First, where does the United States get its lithium? The answer to this question is not entirely clear. The United States does have domestic lithium deposits, mainly in two areas of Nevada. But only one U.S. company currently mines lithium, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) refuses to release U.S. production numbers so that it can protect the company’s proprietary information. (And, interestingly, one of the Nevada sites is being developed by a Canadian company.) But most sources indicate that the United States is one of the top five producers of lithium in the world, even if the exact numbers are unclear.

The USGS does note the countries that export to the United States. Between 2004 and 2007, 61% of U.S. lithium imports came from Chile, while 36% came from Argentina and only 3% from other countries. Chile is politically stable, and Argentina’s long-term outlook is relatively healthy despite economic problems earlier in this decade, so it seems that this wouldn’t present tremendous concerns. But going forward, the center of lithium influence is likely to shift to Bolivia, since vast reserves lie beneath its Salar de Uyuni salt flats. For the United States, this could be a problem: the Morales government remains hostile to U.S. concerns, and there is potential for instability given serious rifts in Bolivian politics.

The second important question about lithium: Are we merely swapping one resource dependency for another? The answer is, on the surface, yes. Energy stored in lithium batteries is not like wind or solar power. Lithium, like petroleum, is nonrenewable. The question then morphs into: How long can lithium remain a key ingredient for important components of our transportation and high-tech sectors? Some resource analysts have concerns about lithium’s long-term viability, while others believe lithium supplies are abundant enough to meet any future demand (CNET has a good summary of the debate here).

No matter who is closest to the truth, we should remember that lithium is not a permanent fix to concerns about energy security. Even if the United States continues to produce lithium, and discovers even more domestic lithium reserves soon, it may still need to import this mineral for the foreseeable future. Beyond this, we’re not entirely sure how much lithium is still hiding beneath the Earth’s surface. Both of these facts have ramifications for transportation and several other major sectors of the U.S. economy, proving that it is useful for the security community to think through the situation carefully.