Why this lithium discovery matters to the U.S. auto industry

Now about elasticity of supply, in which we economists tend to have more faith than do most people. Time and again over the centuries, economists have observed that resource shortages are often remedied by discovery, innovation and conservation — all induced by market prices. To put it simply: If a resource is scarce, and there is upward pressure on its price, new supplies will usually be found.

Not surprisingly, the Lithium Americas Corp. put in a lot of the work behind the discovery. Searching for new lithium deposits has been on the rise worldwide, as large parts of the world remain understudied and, for the purposes of lithium, undersampled. Just as Adam Smith’s invisible hand metaphor would lead one to expect, that set off many new lithium-hunting investigations.

Sometimes the new supplies will be for lithium substitutes rather than for lithium itself. In the case of batteries, relevant potential substitutes include aqueous magnesium batteries, solid-state batteries, sodium-based batteries, sodium antimony telluride intermetallic anodes, sodium-sulfur batteries, seawater batteries, graphene batteries, and manganese hydrogen batteries.

I’m not passing judgment on any of these particular approaches — I am just noting that there are many possible margins for innovation to succeed.

It is also worth noting that the search for lithium ranges far and wide. Occasionally there are reports of significant lithium deposits in Afghanistan, and the Taliban already is selling off those mineral rights, most notably to China. Yet Afghanistan is not exactly the most favorable locale for commerce and mining, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless this example illustrates just how powerful is the elasticity of supply.

It is possible that all the ongoing lithium prospecting will fail, and that none of these lithium substitutes will work out. But it is unlikely. Hence my strong belief in elasticity of supply. In short, if you want more of something, pay more for it. The point sounds trivial, but few non-economists consistently incorporate it into their worldviews.

There is a long history, in fact, of doomsayers worried about resource shortages. The Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth was issued in 1972, and anxiety about resources peaked in the 1970s. Yet few of the worries of that era have been borne out. If anything, the problem has been that we keep on finding more of some resources, such as coal and oil, and burning them excessively into the atmosphere.

That said, the lithium shortage is not over.

In 2022, there were 45 lithium mines in the world, with 11 more expected to open this year and seven more to follow in 2024. That is progress, but on its own, even with this new U.S. discovery, it is not likely to meet the rapidly growing demand for EVs, not to mention the other uses of lithium-based batteries in computers and other devices. Expect lithium prices, and exploration opportunities, to remain robust.

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