The environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has served as an unnerving wake-up call for the industrialized world to confront its addiction to fossilized fuels. And it’s now providing President Obama and other G20 leaders with all the political impetus they need to usher-in a new era of eco-vehicles. Ones that are far more reliant on cheap battery-fueled electrical power than on high-priced petroleum.
That is why the White House is championing the mass adoption of lithium-ion batteries as the most efficient way to electrify motorized vehicles. In 2009, alone, the U.S. federal government granted over $25 billion in loans to automobile and battery makers. Such initiatives promise to help President Obama accomplish his well-publicized mandate to usher-in one million electric vehicles in the U.S. by 2015.
Similarly, the leaders of other major industrialized nations are also rallying around such political and economic imperatives with their own multi-billion dollar incentives. That’s because rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are lighter and cheaper than conventional rechargeable nickel batteries. Notably, they are also much more powerful and have at least twice the energy density, as well as a longer operating life and other key advantages.
The lithium battery market is already worth over $4 billion annually, though this figure is mostly derived from its widespread use in portable electronic devices. However, the advent of green cars powered by batteries that use 20-60 pounds of lithium oxide is already creating a heightened demand for this new-age metal.
Most importantly, the business world is already sold on the benefits of this invaluable new energy source. Approximately two dozen models of eco-automobiles are expected to be on the market by 2012. Most of them will be plug-in hybrid vehicles that can cost-effectively alternate between gasoline fuel and electrical power.
Consequently, demand for lithium powered vehicles is expected to increase as much as fivefold within the next 5-7 years, according to many industry analysts. And some estimates suggest that as many as 250 million electric cars will be driven by the year 2020 -- the majority of which will be manufactured and driven in the emerging superpowers of China, India and Brazil.
Such milestone events are music to the ears of the world’s tiny handful of lithium miners and developers of new deposits. Yet, they will be pressed to their very limits in trying to satisfy a year-on-year exponential surge in demand for the world’s new battery of choice.
One of the lithium exploration and development companies that is moving as fast as possible to capitalize on the burgeoning demand for lithium, particularly in the United States, is Rodinia Lithium Inc. [TSX.V: RM].
The company’s President William Randall believes that a supply squeeze is on the horizon, and this 21st century metal will becomes an increasingly “strategic commodity” for the U.S. industrial sector. This is why Rodinia wants to help ramp-up future lithium supplies in the U.S. by developing America’s next prospective lithium mine.
“We’re looking to become only the second company in the U.S. to supply the domestic market, which is obviously going to continue to be one of the major consumers of lithium in the future,” he says.
Most of the world’s lithium supplies come from three Latin American nations -- Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. This is potentially problematic, Randall suggests. That’s because there are various technical and geopolitical hurdles in these countries to ensuring the availability of a steady long-term supply of lithium for the U.S. battery manufacturing and automotive industries.
In fact, the assurance of a long-term supply of lithium is also a major concern for all major auto manufacturers, not just in the U.S. but in all of the world’s major markets. Notably, only about half a dozen countries worldwide, including China, account for all of the world’s lithium production. The U.S. contributes as little as 3% to this output.
Hence, Thomas Brachmann of Honda’s R&D division in Europe, where there are no lithium producers, says that his company “has big concerns regarding the supply of lithium.”
In North America, the Ford Motor Company (F) has also been very vocal about securing long-term lithium supplies, especially as the domestic auto industry does not want to replace a dependency on foreign oil with one on foreign lithium.
“The industry needs to know where the lithium is going to come from. Are these countries friendly to the Western World?” says Charles Wu, a spokesperson for Ford Research.
Even President Obama has expressed serious concerns about future lithium supplies. In a speech last summer he declared: “Switching Middle Eastern oil for foreign batteries is not an option.”
This will prove to be a daunting challenge as the U.S. is home to only one lithium producer – Chemetall Foote, which operates the Silver Peak mine in Nevada. That is why the company was just given a $28.4 million grant earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Energy with the aim of doubling the mine’s production of lithium.
However, Rodinia hopes to play its own important role in placating the concerns of President Obama and the U.S auto industry. The company is moving as fast as it can to develop a second lithium mining operation in mining-friendly Nevada. One that is equally close to both U.S. auto plants and lithium-ion battery developers.
In fact, Rodinia’s 50,000-acre-plus property surrounds the Silver Peak Mine in the heart of Clayton Valley, which is situated halfway between Reno and Las Vegas. The company says it’s confident it can duplicate Chemetall Foote’s successful business model, which has yielded 50 million kilograms of lithium since the Silver Peak mine was first commissioned over 40 years ago.
This has also been achieved on a very cost-effective basis as there is no hard rock mining involved, which typically involves large scale digging, blasting and crushing of huge tonnages of rock. Instead, Chemetall Foote extracts the lithium from aquifers below the valley by simply pumping it to surface.
Randall says that Rodinia is especially very encouraged by its exploration results to date, as well as the fact that Clayton Valley hosts an estimated 700 million kilograms of lithium, according to the federal government’s U.S. Geological Survey.
We own a very large percentage of the valley, at around 90 per cent, which includes the deeper parts of the valley where most of the lithium may be concentrated. And that’s where we are having the most success with our drilling. In fact, we’re encountering better grades than Chemetall is currently mining in this valley.
So, we expect to end up with a very large portion of the resource outlined by the U.S. Geological Survey. This gives us the potential to become a significant player in the lithium market.
Rodinia also has a stable of lithium-rich salars in Argentina and is aggressively advancing a salar project there to provide additional lithium production for either the domestic US market or international auto manufacturers.
The company next plans to complete a second phase of drilling at its Clayton Valley project , involving up to 72 holes. And that will form the basis of a preliminary resource estimate, which should be announced before the year’s end, according to Randall.
This will be a milestone development for the company as Randall is convinced that a green revolution in the global automotive business will make lithium one of the planet’s most strategic and valuable commodities within the next few years.
That means that Rodinia Lithium appears to be very much in the right place at the right time. And as we all know: timing is everything in the investment business.
Other junior mining companies that are active in the exploration and development of lithium projects in Nevada include First Lithium Resources Inc. (TSX.V: MCI), Western Lithium USA Corp. (TSX.V:WLC), and American Lithium Minerals [OTC.BB: AMLM].