What do cars, laptop computers, cell phones and power tools all have in common? Lithium-ion batteries, hailed by many as the answer to our fossil-energy problems.
While much debate has loomed over the mining impact of today's electric motors and the rare-earth metals they consume, the source of lithium-ion batteries to power them is just starting to come into focus.
Li-ion has huge advantages as a lightweight yet highly conductive metal. It is the fastest growing source of electric juice for the roughly $1-billion power-tool industry. Our cell phones and our laptops run on lithium.
More and more cars are expected to use li-ion as primary or secondary power. The forthcoming, plug-in-hybrid Chevy Volt, scheduled to go into production next fall, is designed to contain 300 li-ion cells. The all-electric, Tesla Roadster has 6,831. Even manufacturers of construction machinery are toying around with lithium ion power.
The future looks bright for li-ion. But where will the power come from? This is an important question that bothers manufacturers of cars, laptops, cell phones and power tool companies alike.
"In my opinion, there is no difference in getting your battery cells in Korea than your oil in Saudi Arabia," says Jason McNeil, a product manager for Baltimore-based power-tool maker DeWalt. He says he was concerned when General Motors, early this year, announced that Korea-based LG would be its supplier for the Chevy Volt.
Most li-ion battery makers hail from Japan and Korea, while the bulk of the world's lithium is mined in South America and China. DeWalt, for example, buys its batteries in Japan or Korea, then ships them to Taiwan, where they are assembled into finished packs.
GM has sunk more than $1 billion into the Volt and hopes to use it to create a new generation of domestic manufacturing jobs. But while the Volt's battery packs are scheduled to be produced in the U.S., that's not where most of the raw materials would come from.
New technology, says DeWalt's McNeil, comes with old problems.
"I think it is a much bigger discussion than power tools."