Thursday, October 29, 2009

Plenty of Lithium Outside China


Following up on yesterday's post about electric cars in China, an astute observer pointed out the possibility that China may have already cornered the market on the rare earth metals necessary for hybrid and battery technology. (See comments below this post.)

I just happened across this short photo essay at ForeignPolicy.com about Bolivia's supplies of lithium which are estimated to be 50 to 70 percent of the world's known reserves (a figure that surprised even me!). Lithium is, of course, a major component of the lithium-ion batteries used in mobile phones, laptops and most of the electric cars currently in development.

So it appears that China will not have anything near the "monopoly" on lithium that is causing the China-haters to wring their hands. Then again, Bolivia's president Morales is close pals with Venezuela's Chavez, so we can be certain they won't be giving their lithium away either.

Also, Bolivia doesn't exactly have the best record of extracting natural resources for the benefit of its citizens. Despite abundant sources of petroleum and natural gas, Bolivia suffers from a "resource curse" which is partly responsible for making Bolivia the poorest country in South America.

So, while it does appear that China's sources of rare earth metals will give it somewhat of an advantage, it doesn't have a monopoly on them. And, of course, even a monopoly on these metals is still no guarantee that the most successful EV technology will ultimately come out of China.