People who are generally anti-electric cars have raised the idea that there may not be enough lithium to produce enough car batteries to meet demand. This would be like the idea of ‘peak oil’ where oil prices would rocket and fossil fuels too expensive for economies to use.
The short answer to this is ‘no’. There is enough lithium to go around, whether for the billions of mobile phones and computers being used globally, or for car and home battery use. It is largely a case of how to extract enough to meet demand – while there is enough lithium on the planet, it is a case of accessing it.
Lithium deposits by numbers
The largest source of lithium is in the salt water of the world’s oceans. It is estimated that there are 230 billion tonnes of lithium in sea water alone, or roughly 32 tonnes of lithium for every human being on the planet.
Companies like South Korea’s POSCO have developed lithium extraction technology. The POSCO blog announced in 2016 that they had officially opened a brine – lithium mine in Argentina: “POSCO’s high-efficiency lithium extract technology, which was developed with support from the energy resource technology development project led by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy in 2010, does not require a large area of salt farm compared to the conventional evaporation and extraction method, and is less affected by changes in climate. Moreover, since there is very little loss when extracting lithium, it is possible to extract the same amount of lithium, compared to the conventional process, even by using a less amount of salt water. Therefore, POSCO’s high-efficiency lithium extract technology is an economical and environmental-friendly technology.” The company believes that from that mine alone they can extract enough lithium to make 60,000 EVs’ batteries a year.
Globally, there are an estimated 38 million tonnes of lithium available for mining and extraction at present. With 45kg of lithium being needed for an average EV, that amounts to 950 million cars! Resource levels are measured as the amount that can be extracted rather than are physically on the planet, so it is almost certain that more resources will be found as extraction technology improves.
Unlike gasoline that can only be used once, you don’t use all the lithium in a battery once it has lived its useful life. POSCO and Tesla amongst many other major players recycle the lithium from used batteries. POSCO’s blog announced in February this year, that its battery recycling facility in South Korea, “The PosLX Plant is expected to produce 2,500 tons of lithium carbonate per year – enough to manufacture about 70 million laptop batteries. This output will supply POSCO’s battery making partners LG Chem and Samsung SDI, as well as POSCO ESM, a subsidiary that produces cathodes for secondary batteries.”
Meanwhile, Tesla explained on its own website in 2011, “Umicore has developed a process whereby the cobalt (the highest value material in our batteries) is used to make up LCO (lithium cobalt oxide) that can be resold to battery manufacturers. This is not only an attractive process for Tesla from an environmental aspect, but it also provides a high margin of return.”
Will lithium even be in batteries?
In a previous blog I showed how lithium might not even be in batteries of the future anyway. Lithium is a rare metal and is very hard to extract. It isn’t the only alkali metal on the planet – what about sodium? Sodium is also an extremely reactive metal and one prone to decomposing quickly into minerals. It is also one of the commonest metals on the planet – it is half of sea salt! Scientists have been scratching their heads as to how to use sodium in batteries for decades as this would out compete the cost of lithium by a huge margin if they could succeed.
A paper published earlier this year explained the latest sodium battery technology: “The researchers developed a simple approach to making a high-performance anode material by binding an antimony-based mineral onto sulfur-doped graphene sheets. Incorporating the anode into a sodium-ion battery allowed it to perform at 83 percent capacity over 900 cycles. The researchers say this is the best reported performance for a sodium-ion battery with an antimony-based anode material.”
I have yet to see a full commercial application of graphene. This is a single atom thickness sheet of carbon and while scientists the world over have been playing with it to their heart’s content, no one has yet brought it to mass market production. As such I have to cast a doubt on the concept of a sodium – graphene battery as I have yet to see it out of scientists’ toy boxes. When they start using it? Then I won’t be so cynical…
Equally there are scientists looking at sodium and other very widely available metals other than lithium. While there is certainly enough lithium to go around for now, it might not even be the battery metal of the future!
By Richard Shrubb