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

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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).

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