Guest blog: Is There Enough Lithium to Supply Increased Battery Demand?
01 Mar 2018
Are we on the brink of a lithium crisis? This valuable lightweight metal has become a mainstay in batteries that we use to power everything from cell phones to electric cars. But like all natural resources, it exists in a finite amount.
As the demand for lithium-ion batteries continues to climb, do we have enough lithium reserves to keep prices steady and production consistent? Are there any alternatives in sight? What is the future of the lithium industry?
To accurately pinpoint whether the planet’s lithium reserves can meet demand, we first have to examine how much we need.
How Much Lithium Do We Need?
The subject of peak lithium fears began to arise when the direction of the electric vehicle market took an upswing. For years now, we’ve been hearing that electric cars are the future of the automotive industry. This became more fact than opinion last year, when several European countries, including the United Kingdom and France, announced their plans to ban the sale of all diesel and petrol powered vehicles by 2040.
To meet the oncoming demand, large scale production facilities like Tesla’s new gigafactory in Nevada are being created. Tesla estimates that in 2018, this facility will have the capacity to roll out 500,000 electric vehicles per year.
When you consider that all of Tesla’s electric vehicles come equipped with a battery pack composed of 7,104 lithium ion batteries, you realise that this facility alone will have to generate over 3.5 billion lithium-ion batteries every year. With Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s hopes of adding another two or three such facilities in the United States, the need for additional lithium will only grow.
How Much Lithium Exists?
French researcher William Tahil found in a 2008 study that there were 3.9 million metric tons of recoverable lithium deposits on the planet. A year later, consultants Gerry Clarke and Peter Harben ascertained through another study that the planet actually holds over 10-times that amount. Since then, several studies have come out, all with varying results.
We do not know for certain how much lithium exists within the Earth. As recently as 2015, it was estimated that the planet holds enough lithium reserves to maintain global production for 365 years. This, however, was at a time in which said production output equaled 37,000 tons of lithium per year.
Greentech Media estimated that by 2040, the world could see upwards of 100 Tesla sized factories to meet the growing need for electric vehicles. In that environment, based on those 2015 figures, that 365 year supply would be used up within 17 years.
Are There Alternatives?
With the knowledge that a lithium peak could be on the horizon, scientists have been working to discover alternative sources of power which could be used to replace lithium-ion with minerals found in more abundance.
Sodium seems to be the hope of the scientific community, with several prototype batteries in development. As a mineral, it is found in far more abundance than lithium, and can be mined in a more cost-effective manner. The main issue plaguing sodium batteries seems to come from its ability to store energy.
The metal in a sodium battery can become oxidised when exposed to air. This creates issues in the performance of the battery and can even render it useless. To make sodium batteries a viable alternative to lithium, developers must find a way to increase their storage capacity while remaining cost effective.
Perhaps the most promising sodium-based lithium alternative in development is the solid-state battery being developed by John Goodenough, one of the initial creators of lithium-ion batteries. Solid-state batteries use sodium to create glass-based electrolytes. This could present an opportunity for efficiency and increased safety over lithium-ion.
We may not have long to wait for solid-state batteries to begin making a splash on the industry, as BMW recently announced that they are working with solid-state producers to improve battery density and recharge times on their new vehicles.
As the dangers of peak lithium looms over the automotive industry, there is still time to develop alternatives before mineral resources begin to deplete. As the world moves in the direction of renewable energy and transportation, the scientific community is forging effective alternatives which will protect the Earth’s natural resources.
Kyle Pennell is the Content Manager at PowerScout -- they help homeowners figure out if installing solar is right for them and get competitive bids from multiple installers. Their long-term mission is to accelerate the adoption of solar (and other smart home improvements), which will help mitigate climate change.
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