BU-308: Availability of Lithium

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.

Lithium consumption


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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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

On May 3, 2015 at 4:33am
Steve Richards wrote:

Timo: you say some comments on here should not be allowed, but you said some viable technologies had ‘not been allowed into the market’!!!!

I assure you that if you, me or anyone else had a device that had either twice the energy density or half the cost, you would have hoards of venture capitalists knocking down your door to get on board.

You always make much more money by making and selling something than buying to stop a development.

Numbers talk….

On May 21, 2015 at 2:16am
harry jacobson wrote:

Read about Bacanora Minerals, developing the largest lithium CLAY deposits in the world.

On July 8, 2015 at 8:21am
bill wrote:

@Steve Richards

I strongly disagree with you.  The oil market has become worth something like a trillion+ dollars year.  Oil went from $25/barrel at end of 90’s to $100+/barrel; for many oil producing companies this was a bonanza and extremely profitable; they could even become more aggressive about claiming write-offs, saving taxes and retaining even more profits.  It made a lot of people, including the Saudis, Chavez, and Bush’s friends, very rich.

If your wealth is tied to the oil industry and batteries will hasten its decline, because oil is over priced compared to other sources of energy, due to its exclusive use in transportation…  then it would be economically (but perhaps not ethically) sensible to sabotage battery development efforts.  This has already happened with electric car related technology/patents in the past, making it more difficult for the industry to get off the ground; understand that there are barriers like charging stations, scaling, and incumbent service industry lobbies.  In other words, unless there is an economically viable path to overcome these barriers, it is difficult to overcome those barriers to a very profitable alternative future; the market doesn’t automatically allow better solutions if there are very difficult barriers to getting there.

Perhaps the Saudis realized the long-term threat to high oil prices; there was no use playing along and keeping oil prices artificially inflated, to the disappointment of the Bushwackers everywhere, no doubt.

On July 9, 2015 at 2:22am
David L. wrote:


Assuming we even need the market. I’m pretty sure we can do without it and work with a system where one provides to their ability and takes to their need as core idea.

On January 2, 2016 at 3:05pm
Henri B wrote:

The era of the linear economy is no longer sustainable in an increasingly populated and developed world . We should seek in all processes a way to recycle continuously as in a circle so as to preserve our finite resources. Lithium batteries must be recycled or re-used.

On April 6, 2016 at 9:28am
steverino_ wrote:

The answer is not just smaller cars,
it’s LESS PEOPLE on the planet.

On April 6, 2016 at 2:14pm
David L. wrote:

Steverino_: We can actually handle way more people on this planet. Problem is, we use our resources extremely inefficiently with shitty consumer products and throwaway items. Our entire economic system is so fucked up we can’t handle nearly as many people as we could, for no improvement to life quality for anyone but the extremely rich.

On May 5, 2016 at 12:31am
M. Zevenbergen wrote:

Why focus on availabilty of rare earth materials when there are other more cost efficient ways to create high efficient electric motors as proven with industrial drive systems?

On May 6, 2016 at 1:19am
Rich Partain wrote:

Oil and CNG will be around and useful for a long time. But not for powering ICEs. It’s needed for plastics, making rocket fuel, lubrication a meriad of other applications. Oil suppliers will adjust to this new market. The the transportation industry will change forever as EVs take over on ground, sea, air and space moving people and things. New sources will be found of lithium, rare-earth and other exotic materials. Conservation, smart environmental planning and technology will shift to accommodate larger world populations. There is a bright future for humankind here on Mother Earth and the far reaches of space. So cheer up doom-dayers.

On May 6, 2016 at 2:18am
David L. wrote:

Rich Partain: The problem there is the planning.

Such things require extensive planning only possible under a planned economy. Something I don’t see the United States or any other country other than Cuba, North Korea and China at least co-operate with despite that computers can nowadays prevent disasters that have occured in the past due to planning errors.

There’s indeed a possibly bright future, but with our current economic and political models we will not live to see it.

On May 13, 2016 at 9:43am
robin h cotterell wrote:

Remember CO2 is necessary for our plant life, trees to crops to flowers.  So cleaning up the environment is a good thing but don’t take away the essentials of life.
Releasing a large amount of toxic gasses into the air and toxic matter into the earth and water does not make sense.
So the idea of transforming to renewable clean energy still makes sense and has to be part of the long range plan.
Be aware that Li-iron is “old” tecknology and Li-polymer (li-polly) all ready provides lighter batteries by 50% and 3 times the power of li-iron.  If you go to your favourite model shop and compare Li-iron versus Li-polly you can confirm the aforementioned for yourself.

It is also a valid point that Oil, Coal etc spins off materials such as plastics, fiberglass, carbon fibre, lubricants etc which are better uses for oil than burning it.

On July 17, 2016 at 8:09pm
francis Salzano wrote:

I enjoy the material you post on you web site

On July 21, 2016 at 9:03am
David L. wrote:

@robin h cotterell

Quite agreed, though too much CO2 isn’t good for plantlife either, just as any more oxygen than 21% is actually harmful to our lungs. CO2 is also the most common greenhouse gas on earth that we can control.

On October 16, 2016 at 12:20pm
al. khosravi wrote:

please if possible information about actual material for lithiumbattery

On February 12, 2017 at 4:20am
Barry Brown wrote:

Can anyone tell me how much lithium (kgs) is required to make a Powerwall or a Tesla Roadster? I have read dozens of articles and references, but none of them seem to quantify this rather salient aspect when considering supply and demand (and reserves).

On March 13, 2017 at 9:44am
BillN wrote:

Tesla, Model S uses aprox $40,000 in LI batteries and that translates to $400.00 in LI cost.