Discover what is hype and reality, and what counts most.
Over the last two decades, the lithium-ion battery has caused a transformation in the consumption of metals and minerals. The landscape is expected to change further as the Li-ion battery evolves from low portable applications, such as the mobile phone with a small 10 watt-hours (Wh) pack, to the electric vehicle with a battery capacity of 50kWh, and to the monster Electronic Storage System (ESS) with up to 10MWh battery banks. At the start of the millennium, only a small percentage of cobalt and lithium went into batteries but by 2015, 46 percent of cobalt and 32 percent of lithium went into Li-ion production. Graphite, nickel manganese, copper and aluminum have not been affected in the same way.
Finding sufficient supply of lithium in raw material is gearing up mining industries for higher production. A compact EV battery (Nissan Leaf) uses about 4kg (9 lb) of lithium, and if every man, woman and teenager were to drive an electric car in the future, a lithium shortage could develop. Rumor of this happening has been spreading, perhaps prematurely.
About 70 percent of the world’s lithium comes from brine (salt lakes); the remainder is derived from hard rock. Research institutions are developing technology to draw lithium from seawater. China is the largest consumer of lithium, and hoarding is suspected. The Chinese believe that future cars will run on Li-ion batteries and an unbridled supply of lithium is important to them.
In 2009, the total demand for lithium reached almost 92,000 metric tons, of which batteries consume 26 percent. Figure 1 illustrates typical uses of lithium, which include lubricants, glass, ceramics, pharmaceuticals and refrigeration.
Figure 1: Lithium consumption (2015).
Batteries consume the largest share of lithium. With the advent of the electric vehicle, the demand could skyrocket but for now the world has enough proven lithium reserves.
Source: Global Lithium LLC 2016
Most of the known supply of lithium is in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Australia and China. The supply is ample and concerns of global shortages are speculative. To attain at one ton of lithium, Latin America uses 750 tons of brine, the base material for lithium, and adds 24 months of preparation. Lithium can also be recycled an unlimited number of times, and it is said that 20 tons of spent Li-ion batteries yield one ton of lithium. This will help the supply, but recycling can be more expensive than harvesting a new supply through mining.
Lithium is named after the Greek word “lithos” meaning “stone.” The soft, silver-white metal belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements and is marked with the symbol Li. It is the lightest of all metals.
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. Shortages when producing millions of large batteries for vehicles and stationary applications could increase the price, but for now this is not the case.
Rather than worrying about a lack of lithium, there could be shortages of rare earth materials, should the EV replace the conventional car. One such material is the permanent magnet for the electric motors. Permanent magnets make one of the most energy-efficient motors. China controls about 95 percent of the global market for rare earth metals and expects to use most of these resources for its own production. Export of rare earth materials is tightly controlled.
Last Updated 2017-02-21
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