Innovation talk: Forget lithium – rare earth elements are the next big thing

Half the electronics needed rely to some degree on these elements

Tesla: hopes to see e-vehicle output grow to 500,000 units by 2020

Tesla: hopes to see e-vehicle output grow to 500,000 units by 2020

 

Life is full of oddities. The softest metal known – one that more or less blows up when put in water – has become a vital commodity that is changing the world. Who knew?

Lithium is the metal in question, the one finding its way into high performance, energy-dense batteries that make our mobiles work, power electric vehicles, laptops and much more.

It is also the go-to metal for the treatment of a range of psychoses including preventing manic and depressive episodes in bipolar disorder. Psychiatrists refer to it as the “gold standard” medication for stabilising mood changes and it is mixed with antidepressants if a patient experiences resistant depressive episodes.

It is good in patients that need it but it is also good for making really strong alloys for lightweight aircraft airframes. You can mix it up with aluminium, cadmium, manganese and other elements to make very tough engine parts and specialised metals.

It sounds like fairly important stuff and so it carries an high price tag, one that is moving upward as demand steadily increases for this different kind of precious metal. At about €237 for a kilo of pure lithium metal it isn’t gold but then the only way is up as more electric cars hit the road.

Exciting

The exciting thing is that Ireland has deposits of lithium, according to the Department of Communications, Natural Resources and Energy, the home department for the Irish Geological Survey. There is a seam of it that emerges along the Carlow/Wicklow border in south Leinster, the geologists say, and it is relatively shallow outcrop there.

Unfortunately the seam is not commercial so there is no point in suggesting a strip mine at the foot of Mount Leinster. The department adds however that exploration work for lithium is taking place here under prospecting licences granted by the department’s Minister.

We would all have to go out and celebrate if deposits of this metal were uncovered somewhere on the island given the outrageous demand for it coming down the road in the form of electric vehicles or e-vehicles. Just catering for the metal needed in the coming years by entrepreneur Elon Musk is enough to send demand racing.

He set up rocket launcher company Space X and is also a co-founder of PayPal, so he is not short of a bob or two. He also set up the Tesla e-vehicle company that hopes to see e-vehicle output grow to 500,000 units by 2020.

The lithium-ion batteries that will power these e-vehicles – assuming something better is not found before then like the car fusion reactor that featured in the film series Back to the Future – are going to gobble up at least a third of lithium output by 2040. Environmentalists argue that by 2040 the world will need to be extracting between 500,000 and 800,000 metric tonnes of the stuff a year to answer all demands. This ranges from cars to the carbon dioxide scrubbers that clean the air breathed by astronauts in the International Space Station, along with the aircraft manufactures and demands by the electronic industries.

Commercial amounts

Here is where the exciting part comes in if the prospectors hit “gold” and find lithium here in commercial amounts. The US Geological Survey says that the world has lithium reserves for 365 years based on the current world production of 37,000 tonnes per year. But with all those car batteries and airframes and other uses this seems far less than industry would need so some put the expected reserves at more like 20 years.

Even a small find would be enough to bankroll wanton spending by even the most generous of Irish governments yet still keep the economy afloat. Unfortunately, the Irish Geological Survey is very good at what it does and although the prospectors are out there looking, if the survey thinks we may not have commercial amounts of lithium then we had better accept they are probably correct.

Of course if we park lithium, what the world really needs now is cheaper and more reliable sources of the rare earth elements. The name is a misnomer as they are not rare, but they are notoriously difficult to mine and recover because they tend to appear in the Earth’s crust all mixed together. Yet these 17 elements have become vital ingredients in a startling range of products and industries on which we depend.

Basically half the electronics we need to run the world rely to some degree on incorporating varying amounts of the rare earth elements.

China is the world’s largest producer and currently covers 95 per cent of world demand. Unfortunately they have been cutting back on production for “environmental reasons” and this in turn has caused the manufacturers hungry for rare earths to come up short. This has caused Canada, the US and other countries to ramp up their own resources to keep up with demand.

So forget the lithium deposits – we need to start looking for rare earth elements. Join the queue behind oil prospects, gas in the Celtic Sea fields and gold in the Sperrins.

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