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Published March 25, 2008 09:38 AM

Tibet's Lithium

As of the end of 2005 there were something like 2 billion cell phones in service worldwide. Certainly there are more than that now.

Without lithium batteries cell phones would be a completely different animal. Bigger and heavier, you wouldn’t be stuffing one into a pant’s pocket. Now that the standard is set the cell phone industry is reliant on lithium for its existence.


Cell phones are, of course, not the only high technology reliant on lithium. Laptop computers (with much, much larger lithium batteries than cell phones), a wide array of personal electronic devices like iPods, and increasingly power tools are coming equipped with lithium batteries as large as laptop batteries. And, eventually, in the grand daddy of all lithium usage, electric, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid vehicles, are nearly all being developed with lithium for clean energy storage in mind.

The future of zero and ultralow emission vehicles is reliant upon one of the planet’s scarcer resources. Lithium is the 33rd most abundant element on the planet. If it weren’t for lithium Tesla Motor’s all-electric roadster wouldn’t have gone into full scale production this week.

For the most part lithium is extracted from brine lakes; until recently most of it from lakes in the Andes Mountains. Chabyer salt lake, in the Tibet Autonomous Region, at an elevation of 14,400 feet (4,400 meters) is not only the largest lithium mine in China but also one of the three largest salt lakes in the world. Chabyer now makes Tibet the No. 1 area in the world in terms of prospective lithium reserves, according to the China Tibet Information Center.

According to a report from Market, China has now become the largest producer and consumer of lithium-ion batteries. The average annual production capacity of mainland China has reached 19 billion pieces, making itself a super manufacturer of the battery chemistry. And it seems likely that the lithium for those batteries comes from Tibet. The laptop computer you might be using to read this might have a little bit of Tibet in it.

Is this implying that the police action by the Chinese government currently taking place in Tibet is over lithium for batteries? Of course not. But throughout history - distant past and into current times - nations have shed blood in a quest to secure resources – all too frequently.

Tibet is rich in more natural resources than just lithium:

--- Chromium iron deposits cover a total area of 965 square miles (2,500 square km).

--- In 2005, 100 -150 million tons of prospective oil and gas reserves were found from Lhunpola Basin in the western part of northern Tibet.

--- Of Tibet's total area of 471,000 square miles (1.22 million square km), 1.6 million acres(650,000 hectares) are pastureland and 890,000 acres (360,000 hectares) are cultivated land.

--- Tibet has 23 million heads of livestock, annually producing 9,000 tons of wool, 1,400 tons of cashmere, and 4 million pieces of cowhide and sheepskin.

--- For renewable electric power generation, Tibet is rich is resources too. Its potential for hydroelectric power is about 200,000 megawatts, 30 percent of China’s total. There are more than 100 sites with geothermal energy possibilities. Solar energy is hot also with most parts of the region averaging annual sunshine of between 3,100-3,400 hours per year at about nine hours a day. Annual wind energy reserves are estimated at 93 billion kilowatt hours, ranking the seventh in all China.

In 2005 China completed the Qinghai-Tibet Railway line. The 1215 mile (1,956 km) railway link begins in Xining, capital of Qinghai Province and goes to Lhasa, capital of the Autonomous Region. It’s both the highest and longest railway in the world. At it’s highest point it’s more than 3 miles (5,072 meters) above sea level.

Think the railway is just to bring tourists to the region? Think again. It has a monthly cargo handling capacity of 150,000 tons. That’s a lot of lithium for batteries



China Tibet Information Center

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