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ARPA-e takes the lithium challenge

Scientific American reports on ARPA-e — the U.S. Government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy — an effort to bring the defense R&D prowess of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, founded after the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1958) to the renewable energy challenge.  ARPA-e’s 2011 annual conference showcased lithium battery technologies — our featured metal of the month — used to extend electric vehicle miles-per-charge.

The national security implications of energy independence were very much on the minds of conferees.  As Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu noted in his conference address: “Energy we create at home is wealth creation at home.”  And yet, as we work to free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil, we’ve got to do more than transfer that dependence to other resource suppliers.  In the case of lithium, a full 50% of the world’s current production comes from mines clustered along the salt-lake region straddling the Chilean and Argentinean border.  Bolivia possesses the world’s largest known lithium reserves, but currently has no mines in production.  The U.S. hosts 12% of the world’s identified lithium resources, but has just one lithium mine in production.  97% of our imported lithium comes from Chile and Argentina.

With global lithium demand projected to double by 2020, it’s time to factor domestic supply into this equation.  After all, if lithium is to become “the 21st Century’s oil,” we need to make sure the U.S. doesn’t stand by while South America becomes the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium.”