Could Lithium Shortages Impede Future Electric Car Deployment?
Lithium pellets covered in white lithium hydroxide. Public domain.
O Lithium, Where Art Thou?Lithium is a soft alkali metal with a silver-white color, it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Most treehuggers and electronics-geeks will be familiar with it as one of the key chemical components of lithium-ion batteries, using in portable electronics and the most recent generation of electric vehicles.
But what happens when demand for it increases because of electric cars? Could we run out of the stuff? Could it become prohibitively expensive?
Lithium ingots with a thin layer of black oxide tarnish. CC license.
First, the crystal ball:
"Mitsubishi, which plans to release its own electric car soon, estimates that the demand for lithium will outstrip supply in less than 10 years unless new sources are found."
"The U.S. Geological Survey’s mineral commodity specialist on lithium, Brian Jaskula, offers a more conservative estimate, forecasting that demand will begin to drive lithium prices up in the next 10 to 15 years. But the signs are clear: Lithium, which now costs less than a buck per kilogram, will not stay cheap for long."
Silver LiningsThis doesn't sound too good at first, but if the past is any indication of the future, we can probably expect that as demand increases, prices will rise, making both recycling of existing lithium-ion batteries more profitable and exploration for new sources more viable (techniques to extract lithium from sea water in a cost-effective way, for example).
If things unfold like with silicon and solar panels, a constrained supply will lead to innovation; no forms of batteries that don't need lithium (or need much less of it), in the same way that thin film solar that doesn't need highly purified silicon was born.
Another thing to consider is that it would be very surprising if 20-30 years form now the energy storage that we use is anything like what it is today. Technological innovation builds on technological innovation, and by most measures the pace of change is acceleration. We've seen a lot of movement in the past 30 years, and we'll probably see even more in the next 30. Maybe by then hydrogen will be a viable storage medium, maybe hypercapacitors designed on the nanoscale will totally replace chemical batteries. Maybe ferrous batteries will replace lithium-ion... Who knows?
In short: A lithium shortage is very possible, but it might not be as catastrophic as some people think. We can't know in advance exactly how it will turn out, but some good might actually come of it.
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