back to article Tesla's top secret gigafactories: Lithium to power world's vehicles? Let's do the sums

As we all know, Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk – with that forward-thinking "vision" the hyperloop hoper is known for – is touting around plans for a “gigafactory”. The top-secret factory – for it seems there will only be one to begin with – will build lithium battery packs for Musk's own electro-vehicle firm, Tesla …

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  1. Adam 1

    >I think that fuel cells – for at least some part of both the electricity storage and vehicle fleets – are going to be the preferred technology

    Are we still using platinum for a catalyst? If so, would there not be similar supply constraints?

    1. Shrimpling

      Platinum

      Isn't Musk planning to mine an Asteroid for its Platinum?

    2. Tim Worstal

      I'll admit to being hugely biased here

      I'm a fan of the other type of fuel cells, solid oxide one. Like Bloom uses (and my bias is that they're the major user of the metal, scandium, that I deal with in my day job).

      1. bonkers
        Happy

        The commentard "bonkers"

        Thanks you kindly for another authoritative piece.

      2. Steve Todd

        Re: I'll admit to being hugely biased here

        The problem with solid oxide IIRC is that you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work. The cost of a start/stop is therefore high, making it poor for automotive use, though it's pretty reasonable for continuous draw uses. All of these fuel cell systems need an auxiliary battery pack BTW as they're quite poor at instantaneous demand.

        1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work

          Funny, that reminds me of something. Something from those WWII films in Paris. Something about vehicles.

          Ah, yes. Diesel engines.

          Maybe there's a parallel there ? Diesel engines used to be cranky things to get started too (like me in the morning). Now they're very efficient and will be beating gasoline engines in market penetration at some point in the future.

          Might something similar happen for these solid oxide cells ?

          1. Steve Todd

            Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work

            So if we give it another 50 or 60 years of research we may be able to start an oxide based fuel cell with less energy? This compares to Lithium Air cells that should be in production in 5-10 years and have 3 times the energy density of current Li Ion cells (think of a Tesla model S with a battery pack half the current size and a 450 mile range)

            1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

              Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work

              But aren'f Lithium Air cells primary cells (non rechargable?)

          2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work

            "Diesel engines...they're very efficient and will be beating gasoline engines in market penetration at some point in the future."

            I'm guessing from the gasoline reference you are posting from the west side of the Atlantic. Here in the UK, Diesel passed petrol (gas) in terms of commercial vehicles many, many years ago and in the last few years in the personal car market too. Every filling station I go to has unleaded and diesel on every pump now whereas only 10-12 years ago, there was one, maybe two on a forecourt. Most filling stations have at least one LPG pump too.

          3. Britt Johnston
            Trollface

            Re: you have to heat it quite a lot before it starts to work?

            If there is enough global warming, this problem will diminish.

      3. RobHib
        Stop

        Re: I'll admit to being hugely biased here - @ Tim Worstal

        I too have been a fan of fuel cells since I first heard about them being used in space flights. But where are they in everyday life? They can't be classes as AWOL as they never arrived in the first place.

        A few years back I recall reading that the laptop battery problem would be soon solved by a small fuel cell that used ethanol (or was it methanol). The plan was that the cell would oxidise the alcohol and whenever it needed a top-up the user could inject alcohol from squirt bottle/pressure pack etc. in the way cigarette lighters are recharged. It made perfect sense to me and still does.

        ...But it too never eventuated.

        For 50 years or so, fuel cells have been hyped and hyped but in practice they've come to absolutely nought.

        Why so?

        1. Tim Worstal

          Re: I'll admit to being hugely biased here - @ Tim Worstal

          Fuel cells are being used. Bloom Energy sells them for example, Apple installs them at their data farms.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: blooming fuel cells

            "Bloom Energy sells [fuel cells] for example"

            Bloom Box, or elsewhere?

            I thought the jury was still out on what's inside a Bloom Box, and/or whether it was economically significant?

            http://www.theregister.co.uk/Tag/bloom%20box

    3. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
      Pint

      Rolls eyes...

      1) So, lithium is common. Okay, thanks. Yeah, I'm constantly confusing lithium and astatine, so I appreciate you clarifying this.

      2) Lithium typically makes up a small fraction of Li-ion batteries (maybe a few percent). Will there be a follow-on article to discuss the availability of ions?

      1. breakfast

        Re: Rolls eyes...

        The thing I find shocking is that there was no mention at any point of lions. Very much the elephant in the room that this discussion takes place in.

  2. Paul Crawford Silver badge

    Interesting. What about Gallium, etc, for LED lights?

    1. Tim Worstal

      Ga....

      We extract Ga from the Bayer Process tanks in the bauxite to alumina industry. One estimate is that there's some 8,000 tonnes pa Ga that passes through such tanks, most don't have the right doohicky to extract it. Globally we use 400 tonnes Ga a year.

      Probably some margin in that.

  3. DJO Silver badge

    Not just Li

    Lithium batteries don't just contain Lithium so while there may be no shortage of Lithium the same is not necessarily true for all the other elements required. There are many different chemistries of Li battery some use Chromium, some Vanadium, others Silver, Cobalt or Manganese for the cathode or electrolyte and there might not be quite so much of these elements.

    1. Weapon

      Re: Not just Li

      We don't know the chemistry of Tesla's new batteries in the gigafactory. But current ones use Lithium, Nickel, Cobalt, and Aluminum for the cathode. Electrolyte is carbon based. And anode is graphite.

      All of these are simple to get overall.

  4. Adam Trickett
    Meh

    SIlly

    There is no shortage of a whole range of elements, however lots of them are not economic at the moment to extract and process at the concentration that they currently exist at.

    Unless you find an ultra cheap and reliable method of extracting something it will be cheaper to either extract it from something more concentrated or use an alternative.

    Saying there is no shortage of lithium is like saying there is no shortage of oil, gas, gold or uranium. No one cares about the total reserves all that matters is the economically extractable reserves...

    1. Filippo

      Re: SIlly

      That's actually Tim's point. Lots of elements are not economic at the moment to extract and process at the concentration that they currently exist at, but there is no shortage of them.

      If the low-hanging fruit runs out, you don't run out of fruit - you just buy a ladder, and sell the fruit for a little bit more. It's not the apocalypse if Li prices increase by a bunch; and it's not like they can increase indefinitely (at some point, you're better off recycling).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: SIlly

        In UK at least

        This is backed up by the fact that they re-open coal, gold, tin etc mines every few decades to process the stuff that was not economically viable when it closed.

        Once price point overtakes cost of extraction it becomes viable again for a while

  5. Chris Miller

    Battery recycling

    According to Dilbert.

    1. F111F
      Joke

      Re: Battery recycling

      That's EXACTLY what happened to the US in the Gulf War. They brought all these recycling containers, had everyone trained to separate and segregate properly and thought the Saudis would be quite happy. They were quite pleased with themselves. Then, some TCNs (third country nationals, probably Bangladeshis) just picked up each container, dumped it into the common garbage truck, and drove off to the dump. LOL!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Battery recycling

        > just picked up each container, dumped it into the common garbage truck, and drove off to the dump.

        Yup, and exactly the same thing happens in Europe, where only a percentage of the segregated containers are actually kept segregated all the way through. This is by design apparently, but I forget the rationale behind it. How much that percentage is varies by location between 0 and 100 percent.

  6. Squeezer

    If you think that fuel cells are going to win over batteries, where is the fuel (hydrogen?) going to come from?

    Assuming it's generated by electrolysis, the overall efficiency from grid to wheel is a lot lower than using batteries -- probably around 50% more energy in is consumed for the same energy out. Since the biggest problem with mass adoption of electric cars is providing the power from the grid (not just sourcing it, but distributing it), anything that increases this requirement by 50% is a pretty bad idea.

    1. PlacidCasual

      I agree with the main thrust of your post. But I guess its the balance of useability against efficiency that may settle the matter. Liquid fuels can be quickly refilled and if you want greater range you just fit a bigger tank. some common infrastructure is already in place (petrol stations) and fuel cells "may" have longer useful lives than batteries. So the recyling cost may swing the energy balance.

      It will be interesting to see how the engineering and costs balance out. My gut says fuel cells but I wouldn't be suprised by batteries.

      If we built induction track motorways we could charge cars whilst they drove along overcoming a significant useability hurdle.

      *wanders off into a Heinlein-esque daydream*

      1. Terry Barnes

        "It will be interesting to see how the engineering and costs balance out. My gut says fuel cells but I wouldn't be suprised by batteries."

        You're forgetting the model where batteries get exchanged at 'petrol' stations. In that model, refuelling is quicker than filling a conventional car. The batteries are charged overnight on cheap electricity and you just buy the energy, leasing the container in the same way as Calor's model works.

        1. TopOnePercent Silver badge

          You're forgetting the model where batteries get exchanged at 'petrol' stations. In that model, refuelling is quicker than filling a conventional car. The batteries are charged overnight on cheap electricity and you just buy the energy, leasing the container in the same way as Calor's model works.

          Great, so long as the vehicle you buy is sold with old batteries and the range is measured using such. Otherwise you find you get the manufacturer specified range out of your first charge, then swap at a filling station and get some knackered old batteries in exchange which drops your range to half.

          Anyione that doesn't believe me should feel free to send me a shinny new battery for my Lumia, and I'll send you my 1.5 year old battery that needs to be charged twice a day.

        2. Gene Cash Silver badge

          Sorry, I don't see a several-hundred-pound anything getting swapped out quicker and easier than I can fill my tank. That would be a hell of a mechanism.

          1. Guido Brunetti
            Flame

            Tesla demoed a battery swap station here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5V0vL3nnHY

            And no, it wasn't actually faster than the gas fill up, if you take into account that the Audi got more than double the range out of it, but it was close enough to count.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              > And no, it wasn't actually faster than the gas fill up, if you take into account that the Audi got more than double the range out of it

              That depends on how fast the Audi drove off after the fill-up, taking into account that North of 250 kph you can empty your tank after half an hour (assuming for the sake of discussion that it's a Sunday morning and you have a long enough stretch of unlimited Autobahn).

          2. JDX Gold badge

            re:a several-hundred-pound anything getting swapped out quicker and easier than I can fill my tank

            Considering all 4 wheels can be changed on an F1 car faster than you can undo your seatbelt and get out of the car, this might be an unwise bet to make.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Except on motorways

          Where the chain cafe's will charge you 20% more to exchange it.

          Also how many different batteries do the recovery services have to carry for when you reach the exchange garage to find it closed down or a block of flats now?

          The Texaco station local to me (central London) showed up on satnav's and search engines for 3 years after it became luxury apartments

      2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        Re: induction track motorways

        I can't help but imagine such a road at night in the rain. Headlights and raindrops and showers of sparks illuminating everything.

        Beautiful.

        But of course someone is going to come along and painstakingly explain that it won't happen because <technobabble>. And I'm sure the person will be right.

        But I prefer my vision . . .

      3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "If we built induction track motorways we could charge cars whilst they drove along overcoming a significant useability hurdle.

        *wanders off into a Heinlein-esque daydream*"

        Might as well go the whole hog and just make the motorways into huge conveyor belts. The roads must roll!! That keeps the power centralised and you can plug the car in and get out for a walk or lunch until you reach your exit slip road ;-)

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      @Squeezer

      "If you think that fuel cells are going to win over batteries, where is the fuel (hydrogen?) going to come from?"

      You assume he's talking about a straight H2 fuel cell.

      You know what happens when you assume, right?

      1. JDX Gold badge

        Re: @Squeezer

        When you ASSume, some ASS comes along and patronises you?

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Meh

          @JDX

          "When you ASSume, some ASS comes along and patronises you?"

          Only if you're ignorant enough to deserve it.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @Squeezer

        > You know what happens when you assume, right?

        Someone posts a link to XKCD 1339?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "the biggest problem with mass adoption of electric cars is providing the power"

      "Since the biggest problem with mass adoption of electric cars is providing the power from the grid (not just sourcing it, but distributing it), anything that increases this requirement by 50% is a pretty bad idea."

      I don't know where you are but in the UK the demand for electricity routinely varies between 20GW (summer overnight) to 50GW (winter evening peak), with a typical diurnal variation on any given day of very very roughly 20GW [1]. I'd expect that variation to be largely reflected at a neighbourhood level as well as a national level.

      There's plenty of scope in there for the demand from large numbers of electric vehicles being charged overnight, especially if a bit of time management is added so they don't all start charging at the same time.

      There's even scope for significant numbers of electric vehicles feeding *in* to the local distribution network at times of peak demand. It'd make at least as much engineering sense as solar PV ever could in the UK (there's not much solar PV available during the evening peak demand at any time of year).

      Don't rule it out till you've done the numbers.

      [1] http://gridwatch.templar.co.uk/

      1. Squeezer

        Re: "the biggest problem with mass adoption of electric cars is providing the power"

        I'm in the UK and am perfectly well aware of our energy usage patterns. I didn't say the power couldn't be provided by the grid -- especially at night -- I said that if fuel-cell based cars were considerably less efficient overall than battery powered ones this would be a bad idea, since it would increase our energy consumption on transport, which Prof. Mackay tells us is a big fraction of our total consumption.

        A large number of battery cars connected to the grid at night -- and also during the day -- is probably also one of the few energy storage schemes that has any chance of filling in the supply gaps from many renewable sources (no sun, no wind) because it acts as a massive distributed energy buffer.

        Obviously there are many other issues with batteries including energy density and recharge time, but the fact remains that is you want to move a vehicle at the minimum energy cost using the power grid to change batteries in cars is the most efficient way to do so, not fuel cells. Given the amount of emphasis that is -- and is going to be -- placed on energy efficiency, this puts fuel cell cars at a big disadvantage.

    4. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      There are two factors to consider here

      Firstly, as you correctly point out, efficiency is a concern. Generating, transporting, and burning hydrogen may well be less energy efficient than generating, transmitting, and discharging an electrical potential.

      However, there is a second consideration, and that is energy density. I don't know how the numbers play out, but I believe that chemical energy storage (i.e. fuels such as H2 or hydrocarbons) has an energy density orders of magnitude greater than electrical storage (batteries and supercapacitors). In other words, you can store more energy in a smaller space (a fuel tank as opposed to a car made largely out of battery), and have to re-fuel less often (and can do so more quickly) - a big consideration if, for instance, you have to drive several hundred miles, and stop to recharge every 50 miles.

  7. Mage Silver badge

    Synthetic LPG

    Synthetic LPG is MUCH easier to transport & store than hydrogen.

    Can use waste carbon and Electricity at a location cheap to make it.

    Refilling "tank" is fast.

    Can retrofit to petrol engines. 1979 I drove a Volvo running on LPG.

    Can use fuel cells (not as easily as Hydrogen admittedly).

    A demo PSU small enough for a laptop has been demonstrated.

    Counter-intuitively it's cheaper to transport LPG large distances than Electricity.

    Electricity Grid, Charger Electronics and the Battery recharging all lose significant percentage of Energy.

    LPG fuelled has maybe x5 range of Lithium battery pack.

    Lower production cost than new batteries + charge.

    I think purely battery powered vehicles will remain a niche market. At the minute the "subsidies" (which include less or no Road Tax and no fuel duty) are benefiting only very rich people that can afford these Battery powered cars.

    1. John Sager

      Re: Synthetic LPG

      And just complexify the reactions a bit & you can go up the list of aliphatics & aromatics. Next stop gasoline, then kero, then diesel/gasoil. It's all rather energy-intensive but we've got all sorts of non-fossil energy technologies working their way up the inventiveness & optimisation slopes.

      1. Dr Dan Holdsworth

        Re: Synthetic LPG

        Propane is as far as you really need to go on this sort of polymerisation chain. As soon as you get to propane, you have an alkane that can be liquified trivially and which does not need insanely high pressure or low temperature to keep it contained, plus the engines burning it usually run efficiently without generating much pollution.

        Probably the best way to use propane is a hybrid engine design, using solid oxide fuel cells as the primary burner, and running the exhaust from the cells through a Stirling Cycle engine to recover some energy from the waste heat. You then have two good sources of electricity, plus a heat exhaust which can be used to feed into the vehicle's heating system by way of a heat exchanger.

        A company in Illinois recently developed the lead-acid battery a little further, by replacing much of the lead in it with graphite. This makes their lead-acid cells lighter, more durable and less fragile than normal lead-acid cells. These sorts of batteries could be used as the temporary storage section of this hybrid electric vehicle.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Synthetic LPG

          As soon as you get to propane, you have an alkane that can be liquified trivially and which does not need insanely high pressure or low temperature to keep it contained, plus the engines burning it usually run efficiently without generating much pollution.

          And there's already an existing distribution system and market for it in many places, which is a big benefit. If I got a propane-powered car today, I could fill it up at the hardware store a block away from my house. (Or just steal some from the gas bottle attached to the grill.) It's actually more convenient than gasoline; there are plenty of propane-heated homes in my area, which means various companies will deliver propane to an inexpensive above-ground tank on your property. To hell with the gas station.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: Synthetic LPG

      You missed one.

      It turns out there are bacteria that excrete Propane in the same way as Methane. IIRC they were found in some deep undersea hot sulphur vents.

    3. An ominous cow heard

      Re: Synthetic LPG

      "Electricity Grid, Charger Electronics and the Battery recharging all lose significant percentage of Energy."

      Not really.

      Grid losses < 10% (ref Mackay [1]), and most of that is in the low voltage end of things rather than the long distance distribution network.

      Charger Electronics? Who cares, the total is negligible (if you mean wall wart class stuff) (ref Mackay again). If you mean something bigger, modern switched mode power supplies routinely achieve efficiencies over 90%.

      Battery recharging ? You have a point there. But if the electricity is (or should be) 'free' because the supply exceeds the demand and the grid is therefore paying generators to switch off (courtesy of high inputs from wind etc), who cares about efficiency?

      [1] http://www.withouthotair.com/ (not perfect, but a good place to start)

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        Re: Grid losses < 10%

        I was going to dispute that, but it turns out you are perfectly right.

        Thank you for educating me.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Grid losses < 10%

          "I was going to dispute that, but it turns out you are perfectly right. Thank you for educating me."

          And thank you for (a) checking the claim (b) the thank you :)

          Thanks also to Prof Mackay and others, without whom...

          [fades into distance, Oscars-style]

          1. Mage Silver badge

            Re: Grid losses < 10%

            8% grid but can be over 10% Depends on country and Region.

            8% to 15% on Charger electronics

            10% to 15% battery charging losses

            All that is only irrelevant if you have cheap Fusion power or live in a country that doesn't mostly depend on Fossil Fuel. Wind often isn't there when you need it. Interconnectors don't help as that can be the case over all of Western Europe at same time.

            Universal Electric cars only better than LPG if we have much cheaper and cleaner to produce Electricity Generation distributed across the countries.

            Totally forget Hydrogen cars. Lithium batteries are far more sensible.

            1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

              Re: Grid losses < 10%

              All that is only irrelevant if you have cheap Fusion power or live in a country that doesn't mostly depend on Fossil Fuel.

              "cheap Fusion power"? What's wrong with fission? (What's wrong with your shift keys?)

              As for "Hydrogen cars" - consider them forgotten. We're talking about hydrocarbon-consuming fuel cells. Hydrocarbon synthesis can be done close to the point of cheap electrical generation, or if water's expensive there, close enough.

              Take that big thermal-solar plant they're talking about building in the Sahara. Ship the power to the Mediterranean coast via HVDC to minimize transmission losses, somewhere convenient to a freight port and a landfill for cheap carbon feedstock. Synthesize propane and ship it using existing infrastructure. You could also just synthesize methane and ship it as LNG, but per the discussion above liquified propane might be a better bet overall.

              Is that likely to ever be economical? I have no idea. (Probably not until an awful lot of the fracking natural-gas reserves get used up.) But I don't think we need to play the "cheap fusion magic free energy" card just yet.

  8. weebs

    Was that nirvana mention a joke?

  9. Brian Miller 1

    Asteroid mining

    Surely as has been pointed out, at some point we will hopefully be pulling down resources from NEO's and the like. Musk is working on that concurrently.

    So, while hundreds of "gigafactories" might be envisaged, not all of the resources are necessarily earthbound.

  10. Faye B

    The Li of the land

    Is Lithium the ultimate element for batteries. There seems to be a step change in battery power with each new chemical mix so who know what will be the next big thing. Should we start stripping the planet of elements now or wait for a more efficient process.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Should you buy a question mark for your keyboard ? Definitely.

      Meanwhile, given the amount of crust that exists to process, the sooner we start, the sooner we have something that we just need to retool to allow for said next big thing.

      1. Sean Timarco Baggaley

        "Meanwhile, given the amount of crust that exists to process, the sooner we start, the sooner we have something that we just need to retool to allow for said next big thing."

        All this talk of crusts makes me wonder if there isn't a book to be written about this: "Fray Bentos Economics: Why All The World Is Just A Great Big Pie".

        All we need to do is dig through the Earth's flaky pastry crust and extract all the tasty meat* we need. Anything else is just gravy.

        And, yes, I really did write all that just for that last punchline. Weak, wasn't it? Time to stop procrastinating.

        * (Might not contain actual meat.)

  11. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    So what's really needed is a cheap way to do mass spectrometry on a *huge* scale.

    This would literally split anything into it's component atoms (or rather particles with the same e/M ratio)

    Sadly generating the epic quantity of power needed to ionize stuff is beyond the power of the human race (and likely to remain so).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So what's really needed is a cheap way to do mass spectrometry on a *huge* scale.

      If you can find a 'trick' to do that, you will be releasing enough energy that it should be able to power the planet forever.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Unhappy

        Re: So what's really needed is a cheap way to do mass spectrometry on a *huge* scale.

        "If you can find a 'trick' to do that, you will be releasing enough energy that it should be able to power the planet forever."

        Well yes that's the problem.

  12. Alan Bourke

    Ah, Elon ...

    In many ways he's the Peter Molyneux of the billionaire world. But maybe someday some crackpot scheme will work, so good luck to him.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Yes, but unlike Molyneux, he is a billionaire.

  13. geordieboy
    Mushroom

    Why look for lithium

    Why bother looking for all this lithium? Sodium is more reactive and is readily available. We just need to perfect sodium-ion batteries and use them as a cheaper alternative to lithium ones.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why look for lithium

      Sodium sulphur was tried back in the 1980s by (amongst others) Lucas Chloride who produced an electric version of the Bedford CF. Prince Philip had one for pollution-free use in London.

      You didn't hear about it? Wonder why.

      1. roger stillick
        Joke

        Re: Why look for lithium

        Joke Alert= my battery is more dangerous than a tank of boiling gasolene...

        Ref= Wiki: Sodium - Sulfer batteries...

        Tepco of Japan (they have a great track record w/Nukes) is researching them...

        IMHO= the 90 degree centigrade ones might be usefull in hybrid autos...

        FYI= FORD recently lost a contract for NY taxi cabs to NISSAN over the hot battery problem...the FORD prototype was being developed in Vancouver BC...there was a working model...that failed a lot...RS.

    2. Steve Todd

      Re: Why look for lithium

      Sodium Sulphur cells need to be kept rather hot in order for them to work, and metallic sodium is bloody dangerous (there's enough outcry over the danger of lithium cells).

      1. geordieboy

        Re: Why look for lithium

        There have been a number of recent developments with sodium ion batteries that might make them feasible soon. See http://goo.gl/GZe9LP for details.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    OMG Peak Lithium?!

  15. Vulch

    Reworking

    As mentioned in the bit about Zinnwaldite, spoil heaps can be useful sources of stuff that was originally uneconomic to extract. Devon Great Consols mine was once the biggest copper producer in the world, then the largest arsenic (The extraction methods for the arsenic can make you shudder) producer. Since the mines closed at the start of the 20th century the spoil has been reworked for Tin, Tungsten, more Copper and more Arsenic as prices and technologies changed.

    1. POSitality

      Re: Reworking

      Yes, this whole thing about "mining is creating the technology not the actual digging" has reminded me of my dad's old industry before he retired: English China Clay (or Kaolin.) I say "English" only because my dad said the stuff washed out of Cornish pits was a lot better quality to start with than the crap from Brazil. But then, they *really* only need a shovel for their stuff, no high pressure monitors and vast water supplies...

      Anyhoo, the amusing thing was he worked in what he called the "L.A. Plant" which hung off the coat tails of the main refinery and did all the experimental stuff. In the end the "product" they produced from the "spoils" of the main refinery ended up as being the better quality item which at the time made no sense to me (I was about 12) but it makes a lot more sense after reading this, thanx Tim :)

      They also tried some clever extraction techniques to get tin and copper from the waste but it didn't turn out to be economical. Funny, I think the L.A. Plant was doing so well at one point they were considering recycling the old waste tips from a century ago as there wasn't enough waste from the main refinery!

      1. Tim Worstal

        Re: Reworking

        There's all sorts of stuff in those wastes. At least one company has investigated extracting the tantalum (it's definitely there, maybe not economic at present) and I had a quick look at the scandium. Certainly possible to extract it, didn't take it far enough to check if economic.

        If your Dad's still in contact with the people at that research plant I'd love to have a chat with them actually.

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Reworking

      The extraction methods for the arsenic can make you shudder

      Fair enough, since the arsenic itself can make you shudder.

      Thank you - you've been a great audience. I'm here all week.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why bother?

    This is all well and good, but since we are unlikely to run out of oil any time soon, and we also have the infrastructure for gas in place, is there a compelling economic argument for even contemplating change from current duel sources to batteries?

    The CO2 bogeyman seems to have been overplayed, but that aside, are there other compelling arguments?

    1. scrubber

      Re: Why bother?

      Avoiding this:

      http://earthfirstjournal.org/newswire/2013/10/21/china-smog-emergency-shuts-down-city-of-11-million-people/

      Or this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2158574/Diesel-engine-exhaust-fumes-major-cancer-risk.html

      You still have to generate the electricity to power transport but doing it away from people seems sensible.

    2. An ominous cow heard

      Re: "we are unlikely to run out of oil any time soon"

      As Mr Worstall points out, the extraction has to make economic sense.

      If it costs more in energy to get a barrel of oil out of the ground than the energy that barrel of oil will provide, the price in dollars is irrelevant, oil (for energy) stays in the ground. Look up EROEI (energy return on energy invested).

      Oil as a petrochemical feedstock starts to get unaffordable too around that point.Which might be inconvenient.

  17. Rustident Spaceniak
    Alien

    The batteries of the future -

    ...might very well not be Li-Ion batteries we know today. They might involve lithium, say as Li-polymer or Li-S batteries; which might be recharged or exchanged at what used to be gas stations. On the other hand, they might just as well be fuel cells or indeed flow cells. In that case we'd probably not be looking for lithium so much bur for vanadium - which conveniently is often found in iron ore. Or indeed, the batteries for the electric car of the future might be based on dilithium crystals. We just can't tell at the moment.

    In any case, I shouldn't put my money in lithium mining anytime soon. Much rather into rare earth mining.

  18. D@v3

    were gonna need batteries

    when we have our

    Solar Freakin Roadways.

  19. Rol Silver badge

    What shortage?

    I do believe Bolivia is getting its head around the processes necessary to feed the world all the lithium it desires, from the Uyuni salt flats. Which is considered to hold 70% of the worlds confirmed deposits.

    It is a slow process though as Bolivia isn't entertaining outside investment, which is understandable when you consider how the country, like many others, had much of its mineral wealth stolen by foreign companies in the past.

    Their ultimate goal is to supply the end product, not just the elements to make it and so get a greater return. Without the support of Tesla or the like, the battery technology they eventually fall upon will forever be a decade in the past and likely uncompetitive.

    Well, I mentioned Tesla, and they do appear to have a squeaky clean, nice guy image, so if Bolivia is serious about its intentions and Tesla is willing to risk seeing its investment nationalised on a whim....Who knows?

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Aha, but maybe he has a better plan...

    Maybe he plans to power the factory with a Thorium reactor and use the byproduct of lithium to make the batteries. Cheap power and selling the byproducts sounds like a plan to me...

  21. All names Taken
    Paris Hilton

    Do the batteries perform well in, say, a cold, sleet dark morning in November when lights, heating and traction all require power?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Yes - rather better than on a baking Californian or Texan day when you need AC

    2. Gordon 10 Silver badge
      Trollface

      Maybe I'm wrong but doesn't most traction control (short of 4wd) work on reducing power to the slipping wheel?

  22. FlossyThePig

    Eye-watering?

    "and thus bring his electro cars down from eye-watering to merely expensive"

    Tesla Model S starts at about £50k, BMW M5 starts at about £73k

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Eye-watering?

      I agree - the Model S is in line with other cars in its class. As a leased car it'd be well within the range of a typical upper-middle-class buyer in the US. I don't personally have any use for one (a sports coupe fills almost none of my motoring needs), but it's a plausible choice for someone who is in that market.

      As far as US luxury brands go, it's about the same price as a Cadillac CTS-V coupe or the more-expensive ELR, depending on options. Lincoln don't seem to have a coupe and their sedans are cheaper; ditto Chrysler. But I don't think that's Tesla's competition anyway; they're targeting the people who'd buy something like an Audi R5, which has exactly the same base MSRP in the US.

  23. Big_Boomer Silver badge

    Sodium?

    No thank you. Petrol is about as explosive a fuel I would wish to have in my car. Sodium is scary stuff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODf_sPexS2Q If yer gonna use an explosive element in yer batteries why not Potassium? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jy1DC6Euqj4

    Hydrogen by comparison is not at all scary, even at 1000's of PSI and -260°C. Methane/Propane are better but are still carbon polluters and thus are not "Green", merely greener. Personally, i think the solution to the problem is 2 fold. 1- More people work from home = less journeys. 2- Less people = less CO2. Of course overcoming the inbuilt obsession with producing MORE PEOPLE is going to be difficult. Agent Smith was right,... we are a Virus.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: we are a Virus

      I have always been particularly fond of that scene.

    2. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Sodium?

      "Sodium is scary stuff."

      Nonsense*. According to the official Nutrition Label on my bag of crisps, there's about 400 mg of pure "Sodium" (<- that's exactly what it says!) in each bag. Yep, "Sodium". No mention of "salt" at all.

      (* Sarcasm alert.)

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      FAIL

      @Big_Boomer

      "Hydrogen by comparison is not at all scary, even at 1000's of PSI and -260°C. Methane/Propane are better but are still carbon polluters and thus are not "Green", merely greener. Personally, i think the solution to the problem is 2 fold. 1- More people work from home = less journeys. 2- Less people = less CO2. "

      Wow.

      Your really are clueless about how dangerous GH2 or LH2 really is. The USAF assess pressure vessels at 4000psi in Kg of TNT. GH2 tanks seem to need 5000psi for reasonable amounts of storage. Tanks storage is closer to -253c but will flash freeze anything (or anyone) within fairly close range before it explodes given that GH2's explosive range is around 4% to 96% GH2 in an air mix.

      The point about the use of Methane or Propane is that they are renewable so they do not increase the level of Carbon in the atmosphere

  24. Grey import

    GoogLi ?

    So... what's the concentration of Li (or it's form) in the Atlantic, and where did those google barges go?

  25. lucki bstard

    Just cannot wait to see the environmental lobby dither between say Keystone pipeline or strip mining to get Lithium to power more environmently friendly electric cars.

    1. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
      Pint

      Crank up the factories churning out "Green" products

      Especially the cost-efficient Chinese factories powered by inefficient dirty brown coal. Yep. Run 'em flat out. Then we'll wonder why CO2 emissions and smog are rising in spite of our extreme efforts to go "Green".

  26. fortran

    Extracting almost everything?

    Most ores seem to revolve around just extracting one or two metals. For example, copper ores. It can happen that the "one metal" has trace amounts of other things of interest, so you can find copper ores where there is enough trace silver or gold to warrant treating the copper in a special way.

    But people seldom look for "man" metals all at once in the same location. The "rare earths" are an exception. Even still, there is a tendency to ignore components even with rare earth deposits, which often means ignoring thorium or uranium, which later on causes a problem (I think that uranium, thorium and the rare earths should almost always be considered a single group as far as mining goes).

    On Earth, we see significant price differences (pennies per kilogram up to say tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram) across metals of interest. Which is about a range of 1E7:1. To get any material to high orbit (or further) from Earth, tends to cost thousands of dollars per kilogram. Our ratio of expensive to cheap goes from 1E7 to something like 2:1. When I've looked at mining on the Moon, the idea was to cascade as many processes as one could, so that one tries to recover everything.

    Maybe someone practising that philosophy could take a stab at lithium?

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: Extracting almost everything?

      Things are rather moving that way. Slowly, but they are. I know of a process (two different ones actually) to bolt onto the Bayer one for alumina. First take the Fe out of the red mud, then the silica, then in what remains the Ti is of sufficient concentration to be worth extracting, and from the remains of that the Ge, Ga, rare earths all look economically extractable.

      But the mining industry is very wary indeed of anything that requires more than a couple of steps or target metals to be economic. Simply because too many people have gone bust trying to make such processes work.

      For Cu, often do extract Au and Ag, yes. But also Te from the slimes in the cathode tanks as well.

      And with Sn, the Ta and Nb end up in the slags, those are then processed for those. Ge and In tend to come from the wastes of zinc processing. And so on. So it is done but really only when there's no other convenient source.

  27. Stevie Silver badge

    Unimaginative Place Names

    Hmm.

    Galena

    Leadville

    Silver City

    All without switching on m' brain (runs the batteries down).

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      Re: Unimaginative Place Names

      "Hmm.

      Galena

      Leadville

      Silver City

      All without switching on m' brain (runs the batteries down)."

      "Galena" Alaska nearly became the first town supplied by a sealed-for-life Plutonium fast reactor courtesy of Toshiba.

      Nearly being the operative word.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: We could do that with Australia, for example

    And the Australians would even thank you when the sheep pushed back to avoid falling into the pit.

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