The world has enough lithium resources to power electric vehicles for the rest of the century, according to a newly published report.
The study appears in the Journal of Industrial Ecology and is the product of a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Ford Motor Co. For their assessment, the researchers compiled information about lithium deposits in the United States and around the globe and predicted the expected demand for the resource from advanced car batteries and other uses.
Co-author Timothy Wallington, technical leader of Ford's sustainability science research group, said scholars have been wondering, "Do we have enough lithium? The answer is yes."
"We conclude that even with a rapid and widespread adoption of electric vehicles powered by lithium ion batteries," the authors wrote, "lithium resources are sufficient to support demand until at least the end of the century."
At this point, they said, the global lithium resource is estimated to be about 39 million tons. Their conservative estimate of the amount of material that can actually be recovered, taking into account economics and processing issues, is at least 19 million tons. And their highest scenario for lithium demand -- including uses other than batteries, like lubricants and pharmaceuticals -- does not exceed 20 million tons between 2010 and 2100.
"There is obviously a lot of uncertainty in modeling of this nature; that's why we looked at different estimates for growth," University of Michigan professor Greg Keoleian, one of the report's authors, said in an interview. "In terms of deposits, we expect there are going to be new discoveries as well."
Keoleian, who is co-director of the Center for Sustainable Systems, said the study took numerous factors into account for different lithium demand scenarios, including global economic output, increased efficiency and recycling. He said responsible use of the resource is a must even with abundant supplies.
"The key is that you're using it efficiently," Keoleian said, "and it's not leaking from the economy after use."
The report points out that most hybrid electric vehicles currently use nickel-metal hydride batteries. And while lithium use is on the rise, other technologies are also in the works.
"We note that other vehicle technologies, such as fuel cells and ultra-capacitor batteries, are being explored, and these may compete with [lithium ion] batteries," the report says.
"It's true to say that most of the manufacturers are looking to lithium ion battery technologies for the future," Wallington said.
Still, the expected demand for lithium from electric vehicles, including hybrid cars, has turned the element into a so-called critical material, with lawmakers on Capitol Hill working to secure a U.S. supply and pushing legislation to promote the domestic manufacturing of the high-quality lithium necessary for advanced batteries (E&E Daily, July 12).
Exploration and mining efforts have also proliferated around the world. Laurence Golborne, mining minister for Chile -- one of the world's top lithium producers from resource-rich salt brine deposits -- described his country's increasing focus on lithium at a conference in Arlington, Va., earlier this year.
While there is only one operating lithium mine in the United States, Western Lithium Corp. and others are also aiming to develop projects to increase domestic production (Greenwire, April 21). Western Lithium hopes to extract the resource from clay in Nevada's Kings Valley deposit, identified in the report as one of the world's richest.
"The biggest hurdles to a long-term lithium supply will be establishing lithium production facilities at the rate demanded by the automobile industry, advancing the technology to remove magnesium from lithium-bearing brines," the report says, "and developing the Uyuni deposit."
While the authors list the Uyani brine deposit in Bolivia as the world's most lithium-abundant, political obstacles have prevented full-scale commercial extraction there.
Click here to read the report.