By Juan Cole / Informed Comment
Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Indian Express reports from Iran’s PressTV that the country has discovered a deposit of 8.5 million tons of lithium in the Qahavand Plain of western Hamedan province. There are only 89 million tons of lithium in the world in known deposits so far, with the bulk of them in Latin America. If the report is true, Iran has about ten percent of the currently known world supply.
Lithium has emerged as crucial to the green energy transformation because it forms the basis for the leading battery technology, the lithium ion battery. Lithium powers electric cars and large lithium ion batteries have come to serve as back up power for the grid in states like California. It is emerging as the world’s most strategically important mineral, given the likely rapid decline of oil, gas and coal.
The International Energy Agency has worried about the world running out of lithium if all cars go electric. One estimate is that under the latter conditions, the world would only have a 70-year supply.
These concerns are legitimate but premature. It is likely that geologists will find a lot more lithium once they start looking for it in earnest. The Metal Mining Agency of Japan is said to believe there are enormous deposits in Pakistan. Lithium recycling will become a big business, too. In addition, battery technology is changing quickly and new discoveries may allow magnesium– a common metal — to be used for battery-making.
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The Indian Express explains, “According to the US Geological Survey, the world’s largest identified lithium resources (not counting Iran) are as follows: Bolivia, 21 million tons; Argentina, 20 million tons; Chile, 11 million tons; Australia, 7.9 million tons; China, 6.8 million tons. India recently established inferred lithium resources of 5.9 million tons in the Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Iran would thus be the fourth largest lithium power in the world if the announcement proves true. But Ebrahimali Molabeigi, the chief of the exploration department in Iran’s Ministry of Industry, Mine and Trade (MIMT), says that he expects more lithium deposits to be found in Iran.
The article says that the World Bank expects the production of cobalt, graphite and lithium, all useful for green energy, to increase by 500% by mid-century.
Diego Lasarte at Quartz considers the geopolitical implications of the find. He correctly points out that the announcement is good news for China.
The United States has erected an economic blockade against Iran, with harsh and wide-ranging sanctions and boycotts that Washington imposes on third parties like Japan and South Korea. China, being the world’s second largest economy, has found ways, however, to get around US sanctions on Iran and imports some 800,000 barrels of oil a day from the country, according to Reuters.
China has the most advanced electric battery and electric vehicle sector in the world, but there is always the danger that bad relations with the US might make it difficult for Beijing to source lithium from the Americas. The Iran deposits will likely be developed by and sold to China, Lasarte correctly argues.
Iran’s petroleum is likely to be worthless in twenty years, so if it really does have big lithium deposits, that would be a source of mineral wealth going forward.
Every big new find of lithium, moreover, enables the green transition, since it means lower prices for this key material in electric vehicles and other battery-driven replacements for fossil fuels.