Lithium is a lightweight metal that has transformed how we live our lives. You’re probably holding some in your hands right now, reading this article on whatever smart device this generation is using to Tinder its way into a lifetime of unfulfilling loneliness. It will power the electric car you’ll crave if you make it to your midlife crisis.
Indeed, everyone from President Macri to former Ambassador-turned-businessman Noah Mamet can’t stop talking about the incredible opportunity for lithium in Argentina. But do you find yourself nodding and awkwardly mumbling, “batteries…hmmm…Tesla,” whenever it comes up in conversation?
Whether you want to rub shoulders with elite business people or simply learn some awesome science, The Bubble is here to answer the seven questions you probably have about lithium but were too embarrassed to ask.
1. What exactly is Lithium?
Lithium is the lightest metal on earth, with an atomic mass of 3 and atomic weight of 6.941 atomic mass units.
Remember the periodic table? How could you not. Metals are defined as materials that are hard, shiny, malleable, fusible, and ductile, with good electrical and thermal conductivity. Lithium is the lightest, or least dense metal, that exists on earth. To give that some context, let’s compare lithium to nickel, another metal commonly used in batteries.
At 0.543 g/cm3, lithium is over 17 times less dense than the 8.90 g/cm3 that nickel weighs in at. An ice cube is about 32 cm3, meaning that an “ice cube” of nickel would weigh about 285 grams. The same sized cube of lithium would only weigh about 17 grams. Applying lithium’s unique properties to a battery, that’s why your iPhone is able to run all your apps, fit in the palm of your hand, and not weigh as much as a bowling ball. Zack Morris is jealous right now.
2. 7 up … so it’s an Up Thing?
Remember how lithium’s atomic mass is almost 7? That’s actually how the soft drink 7 Up got it’s name.
When the popular soft drink was launched in 1920, it originally contained lithium citrate, a mood stabilizer. Lithium was only removed from 7 Up when the government banned its use in soft drinks in 1948.
While no longer found in a beverage commonly marketed to children, lithium is still used medically to treat patients who suffer from bipolar disease.
3. How can battery prices fall at the same time as lithium prices go up?
On of the reasons everyone’s so excited about batteries and electric cars is that the price of batteries has fallen low enough to begin to compete with fossil fuels.
Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it. But the fall in battery prices has increased the demand for batteries in more and more applications, and more batteries means more lithium is needed.
4. So why not just build a Tesla factory on top of a lithium mine?
Even though rising demand for batteries is driving demand for lithium, it actually only makes up a very small percentage of the components required to make a battery pack. Battery packs are made up of the following:
- Other materials
- Module and pack components (electrical)
- Manufacturing costs
Lithium is only used in the production of the cathode and the electrolyte materials.
The final cost of producing a battery pack isn’t even that sensitive to rising or falling lithium prices. According to research by Carnegie Mellon, lithium prices would have to almost double to increase the cost of producing a battery by 15 percent. If lithium were completely free, battery production costs would only fall by 3 percent.
Lithium is essential to the production of modern batteries, but it is by no means anywhere near sufficient.
5. Are lithium mines exactly like other mines?
Yes and no. In nature, lithium is found in both hard rock and brine (salty water) form. The lithium in Argentina is in brine, located in liquid form under the salt flats or salares of the Puna region located in the northwest provinces.
You know when people take those deceptively high jumping pictures on what appears to be snow or ice? The lithium is under there.
So while we use the term “mining” to refer to lithium extraction, lithium in brine is extracted by drilling wells and then pumping the lithium-bearing water above ground. The brine is then concentrated and treated to produce a sellable material (typically lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, or lithium chloride).
Lithium hard rock is mined by more traditional means, and these mines are predominantly found in Australia, Canada, and China.
6. Is Argentina that important to lithium?
When it comes to lithium, Argentina is a seriously big deal. In 2015, Argentina was responsible for 11 percent of the world’s lithium production, and was home to almost a fourth of known reserves and 19 percent of known resources.
By 2025, Argentina is expected to increase production almost seven times and become the second largest lithium exporter in the world, accounting for almost 30 percent of total supply.
Argentina’s role as “belle of the ball” is evident in next week’s 9th Lithium Supply and Markets Conference held in Montreal, Canada. Five out of eight of the event’s sponsors and nearly 40 percent of the presentations feature companies with projects in Argentina.
7. Did you just make up a fake number seven to remind me that the atomic weight of lithium IS seven?
Yes, but you’ll thank me later when you remember the atomic weight of lithium.
Lithium is awesome, and is part of an ongoing technological and energy revolution.
Whether you’re trying to pre-order the newest Tesla from your iPhone 7 with no headphone jack, or you’re a Luddite (I totally get you, looms are the worst) and someone printed this article for you on actual paper, lithium and Argentina are linked. Lithium is what makes it possible to store and transport energy. It will shape the technology that defines our future, and Argentina is in the position to shape the lithium industry.