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The demand for Li-ion batteries is increasing and finding a sufficient supply of lithium as a raw material is kindling 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 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 (2008)
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: 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. 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 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 symbol Li. It is the lightest metal.
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 is permanent magnets for the electric motors. Permanent magnet is 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 2015-09-24
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