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Searching For Lithium Deposits With Satellites (economist.com) 49

A group led by Cristian Rossi, an expert on remote sensing, is using satellites already in orbit to detect and map geological and botanical features that might betray the presence of subterranean lithium. Though satellite prospecting of this sort has been employed before, reads a new report in The Economist, to look for metals such as gold and copper, using it to search for lithium is new. From the report, which may be paywalled: The searchers are not searching blind. They know, from mining records dating from the mid-1800s, that there is lithium in Cornwall's rocks. Those records tell of underground springs containing salts of lithium -- at that time quite a recently discovered element. Back then these springs were seen, at best, as curiosities, and at worst as flooding risks, because there was then no market for the metal. Today, there is. In particular, lithium is the eponymous component of lithium-ion batteries. These power products ranging from smartphones to electric cars, and are being tested as a means of grid-scale electricity storage which could make the spread of renewable energy much easier. No surprise, then, that prices have been rising. In 2008 a tonne of lithium carbonate cost around $6,000. Now it would set you back more than $12,000.
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Searching For Lithium Deposits With Satellites

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  • Economies of scale are great except when the supply of the raw materials is limited or constrained. So much for cheap batteries. Bring on the Molten salt grid storage batteries instead of wasting the Lithium there.
    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Sunday February 11, 2018 @08:42PM (#56105883)

      So much for cheap batteries.

      A Tesla battery contains about 60 kg of lithium, which comes from about 320 kg of lithium carbonate. At $12k per ton, that costs about $4k, which is only 5% of the cost of the car.

      Bring on the Molten salt grid storage batteries instead of wasting the Lithium there.

      I never understood the appeal of lithium for grid storage, since weight of a stationary battery is not an issue.

      • I never understood the appeal of lithium for grid storage, since weight of a stationary battery is not an issue.

        The appeal is purely the economies of scale; the hope is that if one is only manufacturing a single type of battery then everything's cost goes down.

      • Add about another kbuck for cobalt. Estimate for the 85kwh is about 42 lbs of cobalt which would run about a k. Cobalt trades around 23/lb. Cobalt is actually harder to find than lithium. There may be some other expensive components as well. Not sure exactly what else goes into the batteries.

      • Seriously? 60 kg of lithium should give you a ~300 kWh battery. Are you sure you about those numbers?
        • by haruchai ( 17472 )

          Seriously? 60 kg of lithium should give you a ~300 kWh battery. Are you sure you about those numbers?

          According to Electrek, a 70 kwh Model S pack contains 63 kg of lithium
          https://electrek.co/2016/11/01... [electrek.co]

          • That is hardly plausible because that would make it use 900 grams of lithium per kWh. That would be outrageously poor usage of lithium in a field where around 200 grams per kWh is the norm, depending on battery chemistry used. See page 16 here. [chalmers.se]
            • by Rei ( 128717 )

              Thank you, I was about to write that same thing. That 60 kg figure must be carbonate, not metal.

              The reversible lithium intercalation reaction between carbon and cobalt oxide is 11,2 kWh/kg. So for a Model 3 LR-sized LiCoO2/C battery, that's only 7kg of lithium. Of course, you have to increase that a bit because not all lithium will be available for intercalation at any given point of time. But that would strongly argue for 60 kg being carbonate, not metal.

              This [evandmore.com] states that a 2Ah 18650 of the type Tesla us

              • Other sources, such as this article [seekingalpha.com] report far lower amounts of lithium: Tesla's Model S 85 KWH battery is made with thousands of small batteries or cells and would have about 6.8 Kg of lithium. . That would cost about $500 for the lithium.

              • by Rei ( 128717 )

                Corr to the above: 14*48=1764, not 126! That ups the final price to $4788, or $49/kWh.

                That said... 9kg Li metal is probably an overestimate. And to reiterate, these are with inflated raw material prices.

      • by haruchai ( 17472 )

        So much for cheap batteries.

        A Tesla battery contains about 60 kg of lithium, which comes from about 320 kg of lithium carbonate. At $12k per ton, that costs about $4k, which is only 5% of the cost of the car.

        Bring on the Molten salt grid storage batteries instead of wasting the Lithium there.

        I never understood the appeal of lithium for grid storage, since weight of a stationary battery is not an issue.

        I can understand why Tesla (and others) would use them for home units but I don't consider it ideal for large / utility storage.

        Speaking of molten-salt, Sumitomo is years overdue on their promised low-temp molten-salt battery and have gone quiet about it.

      • I never understood the appeal of lithium for grid storage, since weight of a stationary battery is not an issue.

        When you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Tesla with their huge lithium supply chain and huge lithium battery manufacturing capabilities are hardly going to invest significant research into alternatives like vanadium redox. Not unless something forces the hand of the business.

      • So much for cheap batteries.

        A Tesla battery contains about 60 kg of lithium, which comes from about 320 kg of lithium carbonate. At $12k per ton, that costs about $4k, which is only 5% of the cost of the car.

        Or about 1/3 of the median car price, FYI. Batteries are expensive.

    • Molten salt storage, stors heat. Not electricity.
      Converting heat into electricity is at an efficiency range of 42%. So if you pump 100Watt into a molten salt storage, you get out 42Watt later, assuming you have no other losses.
      A Li-ion battery is over 99% efficient ... so storing 100Watt of electricity in a battery gives you 99Watts back.
      That is more than a factor of two.

      And I for my part rather have a battery bank in my living room than an molten salt tank ...

  • There's not a lot, but there is some good shit [stanford.edu]... When you automate it, it doesn't cost a dime in human effort, which is all that matters.

    • Agreed. Find somewhere that's brutally hot, lots of coastline, and not a lot of coastal development. Go nuts with evaporation ponds and some automation and you sir have brought your country into the 21st century energy economy. Yemen 2020 !!!
      • This would be a good use for the Qattara Depression [wikipedia.org]. It is 133 m below sea level (twice as deep as Death Valley), and only 50 km of relatively flat ground from the Mediterranean Sea. As an extra bonus, the Med is already significantly saltier than the Atlantic or Pacific.

        We invaded Iraq for their oil, now we can invade Egypt for their salt.

  • by slashmydots ( 2189826 ) on Sunday February 11, 2018 @08:21PM (#56105827)
    You just look for plants that have really good battery life growing above the lithium deposits.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I thought you would be looking for plants that were chilled out and relaxed?

      Meanwhile the plants in lithium-poor zones are depressed, have low self-esteem, and get stressed by thoughts of their Mother-In-Law sending seeds their way!

  • Where's the story about cobalt production? That's a bigger bottleneck than lithium. Maybe USA will invade DRC

    • Re:Cool (Score:4, Interesting)

      by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Sunday February 11, 2018 @08:53PM (#56105925)

      Where's the story about cobalt production? That's a bigger bottleneck than lithium.

      There are alternatives to cobalt, such as manganese, which is plentiful. There is no substitute for lithium.

      • None of which have the performance in terms of power density, energy density, or cycle life of cobalt based cathodes. NMC (nickel, manganese, cobalt, used in Tesla PowerWall), LCO (cobalt, used in mobile phones) and NCA (nickel, cobalt, aluminium, used in Tesla Model S) cells are all better than LMO (manganese, used in Nissan Leaf)
        Nickel isn't cheap either.

        • by haruchai ( 17472 )

          Power density isn't everything. LiFePO4 is much safer than the cobalt chemistries and is used in several hundred thousand buses in China.
          And its raw materials are cheaper.

          • LiFePO4 has pretty shit cycle life compared to even manganese oxide cells.
            These days they're only good if you want cheap and you don't care about weight, size or disposing of them.

            • by haruchai ( 17472 )

              LiFePO4 has pretty shit cycle life compared to even manganese oxide cells.
              These days they're only good if you want cheap and you don't care about weight, size or disposing of them.

              Wiki disagrees.
              LiFePO4:

              100% DOD cycle life (number of cycles to 80% of original capacity) = 2,000–7,000
              10% DOD cycle life (number of cycles to 80% of original capacity) > 10,000
              Sony Fortelion: 74% capacity after 8,000 cycles with 100% DOD
              Cathode composition (weight)

              LiFePO4 cycle life is better than any other except for Lithium Titanate and it can also be discharged very quickly compared to the other Li-on types

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          It's worth pointing out that modern NMC and NCA cells are only 15-20% cobalt in the cathodes - the cathodes in turn being only part of the cell mass, and the cells only being part of the pack mass. They keep working to push its percentage down, since it's the costliest element by mass. The bulk cathode material is nickel, which is already mined in bulk as a steel alloying agent. Last forecast I saw was that li-ions were only supposed to increase nickel demand 10-40% by 2025.

          While some cobalt demand will b

          • It's also worth pointing out that Lithium carbonate is also a very small component of a battery and Lithium is only a small component of Lithium carbonate.
            There's only about 80g of Lithium per kWh of capacity.

            in 2008 cobalt prices went up to $50/lb
            It then went back to a bit under $20 and stayed pretty stead until last year. It's now $37 and rising fast.
            The problem is more than half of the worlds cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It's not a very politically stable country.

            • by Rei ( 128717 )

              They indeed have the richest deposits, but far from the only ones. It seems a lot of companies have been souring on Congo cobalt. They've done a pretty good job working to eliminate artisinal cobalt from their product streams (although there still are some less scrupulous buyers, and origins are sometimes successfully disguised), and a lot are worried about supply reliability. Which is why you've seen most of the new "cobalt rush" outside of the Congo.

              Congo will continue being a major global supplier, bu

  • ... is ionically, or iconically, or maybe ironically, inferior.

  • New? Not even. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Khyber ( 864651 ) <techkitsune@gmail.com> on Monday February 12, 2018 @02:14AM (#56106633) Homepage Journal

    "Though satellite prospecting of this sort has been employed before, reads a new report in The Economist, to look for metals such as gold and copper, using it to search for lithium is new."

    Nope, I've been using ASTER and LANDSAT 7/8 for years to do mineral-specific prospecting. I just finished a trip out to Lavic near the 29 Palms bombing range hunting boron and lithium minerals.

    These guys are what's new, not the technology nor technique.

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