Evidence Points to Few Supply Concerns for Lithium – Part One

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Minor Metals, Supply & Demand

We are pleased to introduce Keith Evans, a geologist with extensive lithium experience having worked in the industry since the early 1970’s when he was asked to evaluate the future potential of Bikita Minerals which had, until the imposition of UN sanctions against Rhodesia, been the dominant producer of lithium ores of low iron content for the glass and ceramics industries. Subsequently, he jointed Lithium Corporation and later joined Amax Exploration. On behalf of Amax and a Chilean partner he led the negotiations with the Chilean Government to evaluate and later develop the brine resources of that part of the Salar de Atacama that had not been leased to the Foote Mineral Company. He was subsequently responsible for all aspects of the evaluation but when Amax decided not to proceed with the project, ownership passed to Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM).  It is now the world’s leading source of lithium. Mr. Evans consults on a number of industrial minerals and has written extensively on the subject of lithium reserves.

This is part one of a three part series. Part two and three will appear tomorrow. Part one covers an overview of lithium reserves.

In January 2007, William Tahil of Meridian International Research, published a report entitled “The Trouble with Lithium” stating, essentially, that lithium resources were inadequate to support the large scale production of lithium-ion batteries for motor vehicles.  He advocated the development of Zn air and NaNiCl chemistries.

In my retirement I did not become aware of the publication until much later in the year but in the meantime the Tahil report had caused considerable consternation amongst battery and car manufacturers.

I eventually responded with a report, “An Abundance of Lithium” in March 2008 and a second report in July 2008.  Both are on www.worldlithium.com.  The first was published in Industrial Minerals and the second in a supplement to Roskill’s Lithium Digest.

A conference entitled Lithium Supply and Markets organized by Industrial Minerals magazine was held in Santiago, Chile, in January of this year.  It was attended by 150 geologists, mining engineers, chemical engineers, producers, would be producers, battery experts and consumers. Attendees gathered to discuss the topic of reserves. The notes that follow discuss this issue together with future demand estimates that were presented.

I had the pleasure of making the first presentation concerning reserves and resources estimating in situ tonnages of 30.0 million tonnes Li  – about 160.0 million tonnes of carbonate-the principal feed chemical for the chemicals used in lithium-ion batteries.  My estimate was an update of a National Research Council report produced in the mid 1970’s and revised to include more recent discoveries using the tonnages estimated by the companies responsible for evaluating the targets.

As with the NRC report, a fairly wide definition of reserves and resources was adopted along the lines of the statement made by Donella Meadows in 1972 — Reserve is a concept related to the amount of material that has been discovered or inferred to exist and that can be used given reasonable assumptions about technology and price.

Definitions used by the USGS are tighter than this, hence lower tonnage estimates from that source.  When the NRC team was chosen they were asked to produce a report on resources which in the opinion of the team stood a reasonable chance of being developed should a major demand develop.  At the time the concern was in respect of lithium availability for fusion reactors.   The tonnage estimated by the panel which included one current and one former USGS employee, was considerably higher than the ‘official’ estimate at that time.

Other estimates quoted in Santiago were, from Chemetall and FMC for 28.0 million tonnes Li and 35.7 million tonnes Li from SQM.  In my address I also quoted an estimate by Laksic and Tilton (University of Chile and Colorado School of Mines respectively) of 35.0 million tonnes.  In a summary of the conference proceedings by the Chairman, Gerry Clark, he wrote What speakers in the Santiago event demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt is that lithium resources are large enough to cover any rationally conceivable demand.

Before leaving the subject of resources and reserves I would like to make the comment that moving from one category to the other is an expensive exercise.  As an example, the hectorite deposit on the Nevada/Oregon border comprises 5 lenses.  When drilled years ago, Chevron, the former owners, came up with a tentative estimate of 2.3 million tonnes Li.

As part of its Feasibility study, Western Mining has re-drilled one of the lenses in a tight pattern to indicate a lithium tonnage of 162,000 tonnes – within 10% of the Chevron figure for that lens.  Do they feel any compulsion to undertake detailed drilling at the other lenses?  As they are a relatively small company I doubt they can justify the expense so the other 2.0 million tonnes will remain a resource.  The drilled lens contains 800,000 tonnes of carbonate ” more than sufficient for a lengthy period.

–R. Keith Evans

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