Why do we care about lithium?

Dr Emilio Bunel
SQL, Chile

By Dr Emilio E. Bunel, Sociedad Química y Minera (SQL), Chile.

The large-scale commercialization of new energy storage technologies is essential to the development of electric vehicles, as well as to distributed renewable electric power generation and consumer electronics. Energy storage, which should help mitigate the issues of pollution, global warming and fossil-fuel shortage, is becoming more important than ever, and Li-ion batteries are now the technology of choice to develop renewable energy technology and electric vehicles. Given the importance, continual innovation within a broad range of science is necessary to improve the variety of energy storage applications in both developed and developing markets.

From an industrial point of view, lithium has been described as the “oil of the future” or “the new gold rush” and the demand for lithium could exceed supply in 2020 by 25%. At that point, the world is expected to need over 380,000 tons of lithium carbonate and considering that the demand in 2014 was close to 190,000 tons, that is a 100% growth in demand over a six-year period and much of that growth will come from batteries. The lithium raw material in a Li-ion battery is only a fraction of one cent per watt, or less than 1 percent of the battery cost. A $10,000 battery for a plug-in hybrid contains less than $100 worth of lithium.

What should Chile and the rest of the so-called lithium triangle do to take advantage of this precious mineral resource?


Emilio Bunel received his M.S. in Chemical Engineering in 1980 from the University of Chile and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1988. He began his professional career at DuPont Central Research as a member of the Catalysis Group working on new catalytic processes to produce nylon intermediates. In 2001 Bunel was hired by Eli Lilly to establish the Catalysis Group within the Discovery Research Organization. In 2003 he was appointed Associate Director at Amgen, Inc., and subsequently in January 2008, Research Fellow at Pfizer, Inc.
After spending twenty years in industry, in October 2008 Emilio Bunel was named director of the Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division at U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, position that he hold until June 2017. From June 2017 to October 2017 he was a Senior Advisor for the Physical Sciences and Engendering Directorate at Argonne.
In November 1, 2017, he was named VP for Innovation at SQM in Santiago, Chile. SQM is one the world largest producer of lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide for battery manufacturing.