BU-308: Availability of Lithium

Discover what is hype and reality, and what counts most.

The demand for Li-ion batteries is increasing, and finding sufficient supply of lithium as a raw material is testing the mining industry. A compact EV battery (Nissan Leaf) uses about 4kg (9 lb) of lithium. If every man, woman and teenager were to drive an electric car in the future, a lithium shortage could develop and rumor of this happening is already spreading.

About 70 percent of the world’s lithium comes from brine (salt lakes); the remainder is derived from hard rock. Research institutes are developing technology to draw lithium from seawater. China is the largest consumer of lithium. The Chinese believe that future cars will run on Li-ion batteries and an unbridled supply of lithium is important to them.

In 2009, 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.

Lithium consumption


Figure 1: Lithium consumption (2008)

Batteries consume the largest share of lithium, and with the advent of the electric vehicle the demand could skyrocket. For now, the world has enough proven lithium reserves.

Courtesy of Talison Minerals

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, at least for the moment. It takes 750 tons of brine, the base of lithium, and 24 months of preparation to get one ton of lithium in Latin America. 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 new supply through mining.

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 symbol Li. Today, the main use of lithium is for batteries but the raw material cost is only a fraction of one cent per watt, or less than 0.1 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. Cobalt, another component found in some Li-ion batteries, is expensive and if required in high volume, demand for this hard and lustrous gray metal could cause global shortages.

At the time of writing, there are no other materials that could replace lithium, nor are battery systems in development that offer the same or better performance as lithium-ion at a comparable price. Rather than worrying about a lack of lithium, graphite, the anode material, could also be in short supply. A large EV battery uses about 25kg (55lb) of anode material. The process to make anode-grade graphite with 99.99 percent purity is expensive and produces much waste. With graphite, the cost goes into purification and recycling old Li-ion to retrieve graphite does not solve this sanitation.

There is also a concern about pending shortages of rare earth materials should the EV replace the conventional car. One is permanent magnets for the electric motors. Permanent magnets are among the most energy efficient. 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. Exports of rare earth materials is tightly controlled for good reasons.

Last Updated 3/16/2015

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On April 20, 2011 at 5:17am
Pradip baviskar wrote:

what’s the future of hybrid cars

On January 17, 2012 at 5:34am
J. Stevens wrote:

We should make the extraction of these rare minerals a priority. 

Forget going to Mars.  We need to set goals and do them.  Unmanned and just for telecommunication should be our only concern with space.

China has set a goal to do it.  We should also be careful to protect our processes since The Energy Department had Chinese spies in the past.  Johnson Controls (a process computer corporation) is building a battery plant in China and here.  This is a situation where they let us build their plant and then copy it. We have been sloppy protecting industrial secrets in the past with corporate CEOs getting pay offs to giving it away. That is bad economic policy.

On March 27, 2012 at 2:57am
James Elwood Swenor wrote:


This article is very long but ” very interesting to me ” .
I am 72 years older.
I use an APPLE MacBook Pro computer.
I do NOT ” wash computer PC WINDOWS anymore ” .
I am a dedicated APPLE INC. owner / user.
I am a Canadian.
I was born in city of TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA.

James Elwood SWENOR,

living in the ” CANADIAN HAWAII ” city of VICTORIA, B.C. , CANADA

On October 11, 2012 at 8:20am
David L. wrote:

J. Stevens, the situation is as following:

Rare-earth minerals, are as the name suggests, rare. So rare that the earthian deposits of these minerals cannot keep up with the demand, and can run out within several decades. Going to other planets is one way to keep a steady supply, as planets like mars are likely to contain all sorts of minerals. Harvesting asteroids is also a way to obtain raw materials, an avarage asteroid can contain more iron than the human race has ever used.
So may asteroids contain insane amounts of rare-earth minerals, like lithium or cobalt.
Thus space exploration and exploitation would be an essential way to keep up with the global demand for raw materials.

Then there is also the need for the famed helium-3 isotope, practically non-existant on earth, this rare gas is valued for its potential in nuclear-fusion; a process where 2 atoms are fused to create 1 larger atom, which releases massive amounts of heat, like stars do. This heat can be used to generate electricity very cleanly and efficiently.
The only way to obtain helium-3 in sufficient amounts would be space-exploration and exploitation, as our gas giants contain massive amounts of this gas, enough to be easely harvested using balloons and use some of the gas as fuel for a return flight to earth.

In the end space exploration will benefit us more on the long run, as it will allow us to set up permanent bases on other planets which we could expand for mining- and harvesting operations. And with our rapidly advancing technology this would be even more feasable as a functional space-evelator, would be just a decade or 2 away.

On January 6, 2013 at 8:22am

The Battery University is one up on Wikipedia on Lithium Batteries between the two information sources I have me totally consumed even in my sleep (its fun to get excited and learning something so important). I hope to find a niche in the technology. I wanted to say thank you for the knowledge! BB (retired)

On December 20, 2013 at 3:27pm
Scott Hedrick wrote:

James Elwood Swenor, being Canadian and using Apple products won’t make a bit of difference. You will still be subject to China for your technology. You are aware that China is where Apple makes its products, aren’t you? So what you said is irrelevant to the subject of this article. Canada has less known lithium than the United States and an increasing need.

On January 28, 2014 at 11:47pm
Yogi Baba wrote:

The environment impact of electric car is yet another big hoax being spread in the world. The key is to reduce activity. Obviously, billions of people can’t drive electric cars, as tehreis not enough material on this planet to build those.
  The key to saving the planet is to drive smaller cars, drive less. Encourage work-from-home to reduce commute needs and traffi cjams, so even fewer roads need to be built. These are real earth savers.

On September 6, 2014 at 10:26am
Timo wrote:

I am NOT an Apple user. I am a user of Linux OS and I build my own computers. I also drive a Honda Insight that uses Nickel-Metal batteries, and I am vegan and care about the planet. But, that is not relevant to the availability of lithium. Someone should screen the Comments on this site to keep out the junk. 

This article needs improvement. There are indeed a number of options to lithium for batteries technology but none are commercially available, yet, and those that are viable have not been allowed into the market.

There are now more than 1 billion cars on the road. If they were all to use 1.5kg of lithium for every 1 kwh and they all had 16 kwh batteries it would take 24 billion kilos of lithium if every car on the road was electric. The world’s reserves of lithium is estimated at 38 million metric tons. So, there is probably enough lithium reserves to meet electric car battery needs for some time.

On September 16, 2014 at 5:17pm
Darren wrote:

@timo, I’m interested in your resources in terms of amount of lithium availability on Earth.  Is there a way to contact you.  I find batteries and rare materials fascinating subject.  Just want to be better educated.

On October 29, 2014 at 2:01pm
Kathleen O'Connor wrote:

A bit of FYI-
Right now, the biggest supply of lithium is coming from a big corderilla 13,000ft in the Andes. Believe it or not, I found out about it on Trip Advisor. There is a couple of hotels there and one is made COMPLETELY of salt blocks.
Hotel: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g317033-d854615-r120175979-Hotel_Luna_Salada-Uyuni_Potosi_Department.html
The area:


PS- I don’t work for Trip Advisor or the mining company.

On February 7, 2015 at 8:04pm
Zachary wrote:

Time to change to Sodium ion batteries soon