Why Lithium Can't Save Afghanistan

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Following the news Monday that geologists have found a mother lode of minerals in Afghanistan — reports argued deposits of iron, copper, gold and other goodies could collectively be worth close to $1 trillion — it's worth asking a few extra questions.

In particular, there's been an unusually strong focus on the lithium portion of the find. A key ingredient in high-tech batteries for laptops, smart phones, electric cars and the like, its been heralded as the future cornerstone of the world's energy infrastructure.

But is lithium really going to save Afghanistan, as many media outlets seem to think? Nope, not even close.

In the words of Brian Jaskula, a lithium commodity expert with the United States Geological Survey, "We'll be extracting lithium from the ocean before we'll be

extracting it from Afghanistan."

(Jaskula was not involved with the Afghanistan work.)

Extracting lithium from the ocean is a real thing, but it's expensive. Instead, most lithium we use starts off dissolved in super-salty water underneath several feet of hard salt pan in Chile's Salar de Atacama, one of the largest lithium producing regions on the planet. Argentina and Australia are also big producers of lithium.

Drilling for brines and then evaporating them in the arid desert air is the cheapest way to get the element, and it's by far the most common. After that comes mining lithium-bearing minerals right out of granites. Until recently, sucking the element out of seawater, where it occurs in concentrations of just a few parts per million, was purely theoretical. But forecasts calling for steadily increasing prices have led South Korean interests to start building a factory to do just that.

According to Jaskula, South Korea's decision is more than just a gamble on the market. "They want a steady supply of lithium, and they don't want to have to rely on hostile countries for their supply, even if they have to pay a little more to get it," he said.

Of course, no one anticipated the Pentagon's recent announcement about Afghanistan; Jaskula was referring to Bolivia, whose Salar de Uyuni region contains vast stores of lithium. But the country has very little infrastructure for setting up a mining operation, not to mention a history of political unrest.

"And Afghanistan is a century behind Bolivia," in terms of infrastructure, Jaskula said.

Then there's the whole business of calling Afghanistan the "Saudi Arabia of lithium." Turns out that's not right either, for a number of reasons.

In fairness to all parties (including the

AFP article Discovery News ran), that oft-repeated statement came from an

internal Pentagon memo. But beyond that, the only credible

mention of the lithium question came during a Q&A at a Department of Defense press

briefing on Monday (portion of the

transcript follows):

Q     Hi there.  It's Mike Mount from CNN.  We've seen that Afghanistan has been called the Saudi Arabia of lithium.  Can you tell us — and the slides that we saw didn't actually list lithium in there, but can you tell us about how much is there and the estimated cost on that and, I guess, the time when you think Afghanistan might start being able to tap into that resource?  MR. BRINKLEY (Paul A. Brinkley, deputy undersecretary of defense for business):  Jack, I'll take a stab and then I'll ask your – to comment.   Lithium isn't in the table, because at the time — the table represents things that are fairly known or good estimates exist.  The surveys of the potential lithium sites in the country are under way and are highly positive, very indicative of potential industrial-scale lithium deposits.  But they're not ready to measure in terms of cost value yet, which is why they're not included in that table.  Jack, you want to add color to that?  MR. MEDLIN (Jack Medlin, United States Geological Survey):  Well, I – the only thing I would add is that there is an ongoing, continuing effort to basically visit the basically dry lake beds and to collect samples from those and to basically get those samples analyzed to determine basically the lithium or potential lithium in those dry lake beds.  So it's — at this point in time, there is — there has been no assessment of the lithium resource, but we know that, basically, lithium does occur in a number of those old dry lake beds. (emphasis added)

To recap, we have one Department of Defense official waving his arms and saying "the surveys are highly positive! Yay lithium!" and one scientist saying, "hold on there, hoss — we have no idea how much lithium there is out there."

Even if the country does turn out to have vast stores of lithium, it will be almost certainly useless. There will never be a "Saudi Arabia of lithium" anywhere, according to Jaskula.

For one thing, the term "lithium batteries" is somewhat misleading. Lithium is a crucial ingredient, but it makes up just a tiny fraction — maybe 2-3 percent — of the weight and cost of the batteries. For another, lithium prices nosedived in 2009, and are expected to drop again this year (PDF; lithium currently goes for about $5,000 per ton). Why? Mostly because of the economic downturn, producers have piles of lithium they can't get rid of.

Even if demand recovers, electric cars take off, and all of our wildest dreams about lithium-based battery technology come true, Jaskula said current suppliers would have no trouble meeting our needs through the next ten years.

What's more, the lithium in batteries is recyclable. It's just not profitable to do it now. Common wisdom among industry experts is that as prices rise, recycling programs will blossom. By 2030, the need for virgin lithium will cease to exist, replaced by a self-sustaining lithium loop.

Hopefully all of the misguided speculation surrounding lithium and Afghanistan in the media won't impact the country, its government, or the American-led war effort.

There's reason to be hopeful — in their analysis, Pentagon officials and USGS scientists fortunately did not include the element when they valued the country's mineral wealth at $908 billion (iron, copper, niobium cobalt, and gold round out the top five, and account for $850 billion of the total figure).

In the end, Afghanistan may still be able to mine its way out of the mess they're in. But it'll have to be done without lithium.

Image: Department of Defense