Lithium—it’s not just my second-favorite song in the Nirvana catalog. The soft and silvery metal is the key ingredient in making the long-lived lithium-ion batteries needed to build workable electric cars. All the big electrics—the Tesla Roadster, the Nissan Leaf, the Chevrolet (yes, not Chevy) Volt—use lithium-ion batteries, as does your laptop and your smartphone. That’s made lithium a hot industrial commodity, the key to getting the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil—except for the fact that most of the world’s lithium reserves are found in China, Chile and especially Bolivia, which has by far the largest known deposits in the world. So by going electric we could end up trading our dependence on one imported substance for another—and from countries that don’t always like us that much.
But there may be a new source of lithium—and it comes from an unlikely source. The New York Times reports today that the U.S. has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan:
The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
Lithium could be the big bonanza—an internal Pentagon memo cited by the Times says that Afghanistan has enough of the metal to become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” proving that it’s not just journalists who overuse that particular metaphor.
The mineral bonanza is good news first of all for Afghanistan, the 169th poorest country in the world according to the International Monetary Fund, a nation that has one major industry—opium—that unfortunately for Afghans remains pretty illegal. If there really is nearly a trillion dollars worth of minerals to be found in Afghanistan, it could change the future of the country—though it’s important to remember that it would take years to build up a modern mining industry in a country that largely remains without roads, and that the history of nations suddenly blessed with natural resources is not always so bright. (Writing for Foreign Policy, Blake Hounshell is skeptical that Afghanistan will ever be able to develop its mineral resources, and wonders whether the Pentagon is trying to distract Americans from the fact that Afghanistan remains by nearly all measures a bloody basketcase.)
In any case, more lithium is good news for the electric car industry—especially if it breaks the dominance held by one or two countries. (Check out a great New Yorker article on Bolivia’s troubled plans for a lithium empire, and Earth magazine’s ongoing coverage of Afghanistan’s mineral development.) Of course, there’s something of a chicken-and-egg situation here. Lithium won’t really spike in value until the electric-car industry takes off—and that most likely won’t happen until manufacturers can build batteries that can run for miles and miles without a recharge. As important as it is to have a plentiful supply of the main ingredient for electric cars, the real bottleneck is in the development of better batteries—and in the kind of government policies, including a better and more flexible electric grid, that can speed the transition from gas-guzzlers to battery-powered vehicles. And in the meantime: