Feeds

Tesla's TOP SECRET gigafactories: Lithium to power world's vehicles? Let's do the sums

It's limited good news for Elon

Boost IT visibility and business value

Worstall on Wednesday As we all know, Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk – with that forward-thinking "vision" the hyperloop hoper is known for – is touting around plans for a “gigafactory”.

The top-secret factory – for it seems there will only be one to begin with – will build lithium battery packs for Musk's own electro-vehicle firm, Tesla Motors. The spaceman insists the simple economics of mass manufacturing will make them 30 per cent cheaper and thus bring his electro cars down from eye-watering to merely expensive. He's also just recently gone on record as stating that there should be hundreds of such gigafactories over time, producing enough batteries to convert the world's entire vehicle fleet to electric power.

I don't think that's likely to happen myself. I think that fuel cells – for at least some part of both the electricity storage and vehicle fleets – are going to be the preferred technology. On the other hand, Musk is a great deal brighter and better at making money than I am, so what do I know*?

But we might also want to ask the question posed by commentard “bonkers” here, which is: If Musk is right, will there in fact be enough lithium to build all of these batteries?

Fruit and vegetables on display on the shelves of a supermarket

Mmmm, veggies are a natural source of lithium (OK, to the tune of 0.00001 parts per million). They extract it from the Earth's crust, where - you guessed it - there is millions of billions of tonnes of the stuff.

The short answer is yes. Musk might be all sorts of things (he's certainly good at gaining government subsidies), but he's not a fool. He wouldn't have plumped for a technology he knew was impossible so therefore we must assume that it is possible. But that's, while good logic, not terribly appealing.

So, let us look at the numbers we have for lithium availability. From some work I did elsewhere:

Lithium

Production: 37,000 tonnes.

Reserves: 13,000,000 tonnes.

Resources: 40,000,000 tonnes.

Total resources: 2,850,000 billion tonnes.

Those first three numbers come from the US Geological Survey, the usual source for these sorts of figures. That last number (and yes, that is millions of billions of tonnes) is my own calculation. We're pretty sure, to within a reasonable sort of margin, what the composition of the lithosphere is. We know, on average, how many parts per million of the top bit of the planet are copper, how many ppm iron and so on. We can take this “Clark number” and multiply it by the weight of said lithosphere and this will give us an idea of truly how much (at the very extreme) of an element is available to us.

It is absurd to think of mining all of that, sure. It would require that we strip-mined absolutely everything down to a depth of tens of kilometres. But just move the zero one place. We could do that with Australia, for example, which is about 10 per cent of the whole place. No one would really mind: at least, only Australians (so no one that really matters). Or, more believably, I'm not sure we'd even notice if someone strip-mined East Siberia. So, over the long term, there's at least hundreds of thousands of billions of tonnes of lithium available to us.

What this calculation is really saying is that there's a little bit of lithium in everything: your garden veg patch for example. And if we want it badly enough then we'll go and get it.

As to the other numbers, by production, we refer to the current annual global production; reserves are the working stocks of those mines/extraction plants currently in operation; and resources are where we know we could go to build a mine/extraction plant if we wanted to but we've not quite done the work to prove that we can yet. In the case of the latter, the emphasis is on proving to a specific legal and economic standard that it can be done (cost-effectively, within the laws governing the territory, et cetera).

The Power of One Brief: Top reasons to choose HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Stick a 4K in them: Super high-res TVs are DONE
4,000 pixels is niche now... Don't say we didn't warn you
BBC goes offline in MASSIVE COCKUP: Stephen Fry partly muzzled
Auntie tight-lipped as major outage rolls on
Philip K Dick 'Nazi alternate reality' story to be made into TV series
Amazon Studios, Ridley Scott firm to produce The Man in the High Castle
iPad? More like iFAD: We reveal why Apple fell into IBM's arms
But never fear fanbois, you're still lapping up iPhones, Macs
Bose says today is F*** With Dre Day: Beats sued in patent battle
Music gear giant seeks some of that sweet, sweet Apple pie
There's NOTHING on TV in Europe – American video DOMINATES
Even France's mega subsidies don't stop US content onslaught
You! Pirate! Stop pirating, or we shall admonish you politely. Repeatedly, if necessary
And we shall go about telling people you smell. No, not really
Too many IT conferences to cover? MICROSOFT to the RESCUE!
Yet more word of cuts emerges from Redmond
Joe Average isn't worth $10 a year to Mark Zuckerberg
The Social Network deflates the PC resurgence with mobile-only usage prediction
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.