Since the release of the first commercial lithium ion battery (LIB) in 1991, this technology has expanded at a rapid rate. So rapid, in fact, that concerns are beginning to be raised about a state of “peak lithium” beyond which we won’t have enough to fuel our bottomless thirst for electronics. But is peak lithium a real concern? Or just another over-hyped disaster scenario?
The primary reason for the remarkable success of LIBs is that they have much higher energy density as compared with alternatives. For reference, a 1 kg lithium-ion battery can store 150 Watt-hours worth of electricity; a competing nickel metal hydride battery of the same weight has only 60 to 70 Watt-hours of capacity, and a lead acid battery only 25 Watt-hours. The reasons for this are twofold. First, lithium-ion batteries rely on very lightweight lithium and carbon electrodes and second, lithium is a highly reactive element allowing the generation a large amount of energy from a small quantity of material.
As a result, lithium-ion batteries are now ubiquitous in consumer electronics like cell phones laptops and their presence is only growing as we move towards the era of smart homes and the internet of things. On top of that, as home and business owners seek to break their dependence on fossil fuels, LIB’s share of the market will expand further. Solar installations with associated battery storage already really heavily on lithium-ion technology as in, for example, Tesla’s popular Powerwall.
By far the biggest demand for lithium-ion batteries at present, and into the future, is electric vehicles. In the past decade, the number of electric vehicles on the road has risen from essentially zero to over 2 million in 2015. It is projected to hit 24.4 million by 2030. That’s a lot of lithium batteries!
Is there enough?
So will our lithium reserves hold up? Tesla has recently reported its lithium demand per year will be on the order of 8,000 metric tons by 2020. Assuming the demand for alternative fuels continues to grow, one could reasonably predict that by 2030, at least 50 Tesla-size battery production factories will exist around the world. This amounts to a global annual demand of about 400,000 metric tons of lithium for batteries alone. Lithium’s other primary uses include the manufacture of ceramics and lubricating greases.
The US Geological Survey estimates there are 39.5 million metric tons of lithium resources globally. “Resources” refers to supplies that can be feasibly extracted for economic gain at some point. Resource supplies can increase if the price of the element rises or a new extraction technique becomes available. For example, the U.S. oil resources were greatly amplified by the introduction of fracking. By this measure, we have lithium to last for about a hundred years, assuming that our demand plateaus around 400,000 metric tons and that the mining and processing infrastructure is put in place to extract the reserves, many of which are located in remote areas in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
Unfortunately, this assumption is unlikely to hold. Given the increasing costs of fossil fuels, both financial and environmental, the market for electric vehicles and solar power storage is forecasted to grow. Global population increases, along with emergent economies like China, India, and Brazil whose newly established middle-class populations are purchasing vehicles for the first time, will put ever more strain on all our limited resources.
What can be done?
That said, the outlook is not all doom and gloom. Avoiding peak lithium may be considerably easier than avoiding peak oil. Unlike oil, there are viable substitutes for lithium in many of its applications. For example, the lithium anode of a LIB can also use calcium, magnesium, zinc or mercury; calcium and aluminum soaps can act as substitutes for stearates in greases; and sodic and potassic fluxes can be used for ceramics and glass manufacture.
Another option is to put in place initiatives for the reuse and recycling of batteries. At present, it makes no economic sense to recycle the lithium in batteries, but the element is in fact 100% recyclable. As demand vaults higher than supply, and the price of new lithium increases accordingly, recycling lithium will become both economically feasible and crucially important.
The best option, however, is to limit our use of single-operator vehicles. Using our battery technology to develop multi-passenger commuter vehicles and organizing electric vehicle carpooling will lower the strain on lithium stocks.
The reality is that we have the resources to power our future sustainably, but some measure of global cooperation will be required to use them efficiently. Pairing technology like lithium-ion batteries, electric vehicles, and solar power with socially responsible decisions like ride sharing, riding a bike, and recycling electronics offer the best chance for continued success in the long run.
Image credit: Lwp Kommunikáció, courtesy Flickr