The New Gold Rush? Lithium The Obama administration wants to see 1 million plug-in hybrid electric cars on the roads by 2015. That's going to require the production of a lightweight metal now used for everything from cell phone batteries to the treatment of mood disorders. It's lithium, and to get it requires going far from American shores. That has mining companies scrambling to secure mining rights in the far reaches of the world.
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The New Gold Rush? Lithium

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The New Gold Rush? Lithium

The New Gold Rush? Lithium

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Obama administration wants one million electric cars on the roads by 2015. That's going to require increased production of lithium, a lightweight metal used for everything from cell phone batteries to ceramics, to the lithium-ion batteries in cars.

The growing demand for lithium has started a rush to secure mining rights all over the world.

From the High Andes of northern Argentina, NPR's Juan Forero reports on one of the world's richest lithium deposits.

JUAN FORERO: Here on one of the world's great mountain ranges, the wind blows hard.

(Soundbite of wind)

FORERO: It's cold and remote. The only inhabitants seem to be the occasional fleet-footed llama. But these days, mining companies are arriving. The U.S. Geological Survey says most of the world's lithium reserves are here or just across the border in Bolivia and Chile.

(Soundbite of footsteps on a salt bed)

FORERO: That cracking sound is music to the ears of one geologist, Horacio Dias, as he walks over the vast salt bed known as Cauchari.

Mr. HORACIO DIAS (Geologist, Exar): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Just underground, Dias says, under tender plates of crystallized salt, is the lithium.

Dias is managing operations here for Exar, the Argentine affiliate of Canada's Lithium Americas Corporation. The company believes there may be eight million tons of lithium here, the third largest deposit in the world.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FORERO: With his white hard hat, Dias heads over to a tripod-like well and watches as the powerful machine pulverizes rock with a drill bit the size of a rhino's head. A milky brown brine is pumped up - a cocktail that contains mud, magnesium and lime. It also contains lithium, the lightest of any solid element - so light that it skitters wildly about on water.

Mr. DIAS: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Dias says you'll find lithium in a molecular state, or diluted in the brine.

Yet, mining companies believe lithium could one day be as valuable as oil. That's because lithium-ion batteries are far lighter and their charge lasts far longer than the lead-acid batteries in your car. That's made them perfect for laptops. Some now see lithium as ideal for the new electric or gas-electric hybrid cars that motor companies are making.

In those cars, the lithium weighs just a few pounds. But the other components needed in a battery pack make them huge - hundreds of pounds in some cases. The goal is to make batteries far lighter, which would make them far cheaper.

Ms. ANN MARIE SASTRY (CEO, Sakti3): Energy density is a critical, critical problem in today's battery cells and that translates to limited range in a vehicle.

FORERO: Ann Marie Sastry is CEO of Sakti3 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of many relatively new companies developing better, lighter lithium-ion batteries for cars. She says with improvements, lithium use in cars could one day dwarf its use in cell phones and computers.

Ms. SASTRY: And that means in turn that there's going to be a very strong drive to getting access to lithium to drive the cost down.

FORERO: To propel new technologies, the Department of Energy has provided nearly $1 billion to battery-makers and suppliers. The idea is to generate an advanced battery industry and to resolve prickly problems, like improving the range in lithium-ion batteries.

GM's new hybrid, the Volt, goes about 40 miles on its charge before the driver switches to gasoline. Bill Wallace is GM's director of global battery systems. Fully electric cars go 100 miles or more, he says, but it's not enough.

Mr. BILL WALLACE (Director of Global Battery Systems, GM): And we're going to have to see those ranges probably triple before most people can really rely completely and exclusively on an electric vehicle for what they want to do.

FORERO: Here on a windswept plain in Argentina, in Exar's makeshift lab, technicians check the concentration of the minerals they've extracted from underground.

(Soundbite of glass clanging)

Ms. ANDREA FIGUEROA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Lab worker Andrea Figueroa says they're determining how much calcium and magnesium are mixed in with what Exar really wants, the lithium.

The lower the levels of the other minerals, the cheaper the extraction. Exar's operations here are still being developed, but across 231 square miles the mine is pumping up brine.

(Soundbite of pumping)

FORERO: There are also evaporating pools here, where with the sun's help, that brine is turned to lithium. Horacio Dias, the manager here, says there's no hurry at the moment. Demand remains low.

Mr. DIAS: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: But Dias says demand will only grow. Exar, he says, is responding by stepping up its investments.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

HANSEN: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, you'll hear a report from Israel. The country claims it will be petroleum-free in less than a decade. The CEO of the world's leading electric vehicle company says that could happen in the United States, too.

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