Proponents and critics of electric vehicles both talk about how a global shortage of lithium might hinder adoption of battery-based auto technologies. But experts say new lithium finds are largely irrelevant to advanced battery production, as concerns over a shortage of the material are overblown.
At issue are vast underground stores of gold, copper, iron, cobalt, lithium and other materials in Afghanistan, resources that U.S. officials said last week may be worth close to $1 trillion (Greenwire, June 14).
The revelation turned up the volume on speculation whether lithium -- which is today produced in only a few countries in relatively small amounts -- could be supplied in enough quantity to support a mass transition to electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. Electric cars scheduled to arrive on the market in small quantities this year, like Nissan's Leaf and GM's Volt, rely on lithium-based battery packs.
"If (and this is a big if), there is a significant conversion of the automotive fleet to batteries, lithium-based ones make the most sense. In this scenario, we can get lithium-limited," wrote Venkat Srinivasan, a researcher with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Batteries for Advanced Transportation Technologies program, on his blog, "This Week in Batteries." "But we are not talking about just running out of the metal (which could happen if we convert all our cars), it[']s more the question of: can we mine the metal at the rate we will consume it?" he wrote.
In an interview, Srinivasan said, "There is this question that's popped up, I would say pretty regularly. Should we be thinking about something that's beyond lithium?"
At the moment, with lithium-based battery chemistries looking the most promising to deliver the amount of energy a vehicle needs in a small package, Srinivasan said it makes sense to consider what seems like it could be a bottleneck in mass conversion to the technology. Today's advanced batteries also rely on other materials, like cobalt, nickel and manganese, he said, but attention has focused on lithium because of the relatively small number of countries that produce it.
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data show that in recent years, Chile has produced two-thirds of the lithium imported into the United States, with virtually all the rest coming from Argentina and 1 percent coming from China. The United States produces some lithium domestically, but imports more than it exports and relies on a process that is more expensive than that used in South America.
The United States also imports lithium in the form of finished batteries in electronic gear. Worldwide, most production of the material comes from Chile, but Australia and China also show up significantly in the statistics.
China and Bolivia hold major reserves of the mineral, but analysts are wary of U.S. access to material produced in China, a likely competitor in the advanced vehicles market, and of politically unstable Bolivia.
The revelation of potentially large reserves in Afghanistan adds to the list of possible sources, but many observers have said the ongoing war there and lack of infrastructure place the country on the list of locations unlikely to serve U.S. markets in the near term.
Material shortage a myth?
Linda Gaines, a systems analyst at Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Transportation Research, said her study of the question indicates that the issue is entirely overblown.
"There's only one person in the world, basically, who ever decided we were short of lithium, and that's this guy [William] Tahil, in France," Gaines said.
Tahil, a researcher with technology consulting firm Meridian International Research, has published papers arguing that global lithium deposits will not meet the projected need from battery usage.
"Realistic analysis of the world's lithium deposits and potential sources shows that maximum sustainable production of battery-grade lithium carbonate will only be sufficient for very limited numbers of electric vehicles," Tahil wrote in a 2008 paper.
"Existing demand for [lithium carbonate] for portable electronics batteries is stretching the ability of the lithium producers to keep pace even before the first automotive batteries, 100 times as large as a laptop computer battery, reach the market," Tahil continued. "Increasing lithium carbonate production significantly will destroy some of the most beautiful and unique ecosystems in the world for a material that can only supply a niche automotive market. Li-ion-powered cars are not 'green cars' but environmentally destructive cars."
Gaines disagrees. She believes that Tahil's assumptions go beyond the bounds of being reasonably conservative, and criticized him for discounting the U.S. method of lithium production from mined ores, as opposed to the cheaper South American method of evaporating salty brines to leave the mineral behind, and for overestimating the amount of lithium needed per battery.
"I don't think there could be a problem with lithium supply," she said, adding that a large number of companies have taken steps to become producers, in a speculative frenzy of interest in the mineral. If any significant portion of those groups actually do it, she says, there will be a glut on the market.
Brian Jaskula, a USGS mineral commodities specialist, generally agrees.
"There's a lot of lithium out there, and the more they explore, the more they're finding," he said. "With lithium, it hasn't been looked for with such scrutiny as it is right now, so there's probably a lot of untapped sources of lithium out there that we just don't know about because we haven't been looking in a certain area."
Jaskula said that Tahil's observation of a lithium shortage reflected a short-term situation, when problems with Argentine production coincided with a supply hiccup as China entered the marketplace. Since then, he said, global supply has nearly doubled.
Two global conferences on lithium supply were scheduled after Tahil's alarming conclusions were published, Jaskula said. "Everyone came out with the understanding that there's so much lithium out there that those [articles] are not very valid. They don't hold much -- they're just not very well-researched," he said.
Tahil declined to comment on the new find or its potential effect on his analysis, saying conclusions could not be drawn without a geological scoping study and reserves estimate.
Difficult to predict
In addressing lithium supply, the experts point to the potential for battery recycling to play a major role.
Today, virtually all car batteries are recycled, with the lead-acid battery pack being disassembled and the materials reused. That model could go a long way to easing the supply of lithium too.
"Today when my laptop battery fails, I'm not even sure what happens to it," battery researcher Srinivasan said. There is some limited recycling of laptop batteries in the U.S., but the vast majority are not recycled. The issue is one that the Energy Department is seeking to address through a research grant, funded with stimulus dollars, for a lithium battery recycling program.
Srinivasan said raw lithium is not one of the biggest costs in a lithium-ion battery. Hard numbers are closely guarded and hard to come by, he said, but common estimates are that raw materials account for about 40 percent of an advanced battery's cost, with manufacturing at about 45 percent. For the lithium-based components, processing the material into the right type and form for use is expensive, he said.
"So really it's more about whether the resource is dependable, how much push there is away from lithium technologies," he concluded.
Paul Albertus, a former student who worked with Srinivasan on an upcoming paper on mineral supplies, said his research indicates that using the entire annual production of lithium, it would be possible to make about 10 million electric vehicles (EVs) per year that use 40 kilowatt-hour batteries, enough for a driving range of about 100 miles.
"So, if you want to make 1 million EVs per year with 40 kWh batteries, that would require an increase in [lithium] supply by about 10 percent over current levels," Albertus wrote in an e-mail. By way of comparison, Toyota sells about 150,000 to 200,000 Prius cars per year after 10 years on the market, he said, out of total annual car sales of between 10 and 15 million vehicles.
Jaskula, from USGS, said that in the short term, lithium supplies will be adequate for vehicle demand if EVs take off. And over time horizons of more than 20 years, he said, mineral production would rise to meet demand and battery recycling would come into balance with the use of virgin materials. But in a window of 10 to 20 years out, if EVs really take off then there could be supply imbalances.
Today marks a strange moment in the lithium markets, he said. Lithium commodity prices are currently low, and a global glut is forcing some companies out of business. At the same time, speculation is feverish based on future, auto-related demand. "So current production is dwindling but exploration is taking place at a furious pace," he said.
Both Argonne's Gaines and Srinivasan see cobalt as another candidate for bottleneck status. Gaines said the material is expensive and, while it is associated with battery overheating problems that the industry is working hard to solve, it is presently used in virtually all laptop batteries.
For Srinivasan, working with so many materials that are relatively underutilized in manufacturing requires a difficult look into the future.
"You have to ask yourself, what's the thing that's going to limit you?" Srinivasan said. "That doesn't mean that lithium's going to be the one that comes back to bite you."