Swapping Peak Oil for Peak Lithium?

By · October 31, 2008

The automotive world appears well on its way to a lithium-powered future. The rock star of electric vehicles, the Tesla Roadster, relies solely on lithium ion batteries. GM’s Volt and Toyota’s plug-in Prius both will carry lithium battery packs when they appear on the market in a of couple years. Nissan, Mitsubishi, Ford, Chrysler and others all tout lithium as the battery of choice in the near future.

As the future of lithium continues to get brighter, some skeptics are presenting concerns that might give pause to those who see this metal as the ideal path towards petroleum-free transportation.

Lithium Mining, Chile

Lithium Mining in Chile. (Photo: Flickr/ar.obrien)

What Is Lithium?

“Could we not be swapping dependence on one depleting natural resource, oil, for another? Analysis shows that a world dependent on lithium for its vehicles could soon face even tighter resource constraints than we face today with oil.”

William Tahil

research director, Meridian International Research

First, a bit about lithium. It is one of the most common elements on earth, but does not appear alone and usually appears in relatively low concentrations, so it must be mined or “harvested” and separated from the other minerals with which it occurs. While abundant as an element, commercial quantities of lithium are found in relatively few places, with current lithium production coming primarily from China and Argentina, but expected to begin in volume in China, Australia, and Russia, as well as the US. Because of a limited number of sources for processed lithium, the potential for market disruption or manipulation is greater even than what is seen with oil and OPEC, according to some observers.

While the supply of processed lithium is limited and might be challenged by rapid adoption of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles using lithium batteries, other researchers have faith—not unlike that expressed by the petroleum industry in talks about “peak oil”—that rising prices caused by limited supply would ultimately increase the lithium supply exponentially. Recent estimates of lithium supply have been going up.

One could envision a situation like the one the photovoltaic industry has experienced during the past few years, where a shortage of processed polysilicon held up production and raised prices on solar energy materials. That issue appears to be on its way to resolution as new plants come online, but prices will take a while to react to the changes in the market and, in the interim, higher prices limit the market.

Recycling Lithium

Finally, lithium has another issue that goes back to its essence. Lithium is a corrosive substance and in batteries has the potential to short circuit and catch fire, which has led to strict regulations for shipping.

Recycling is another challenge for automotive-scale lithium batteries. One manufacturer admitted that they needed to “develop innovative recycling ideas that will allow at least 50 percent of the content of lithium ion cells to be recycled.”

In Australia, the prospect of Toyota beginning production of the next generation Camry Hybrid was greeted by some with concern that the model would include lithium ion batteries. As was noted by one of the country’s opposition leaders, the island continent has no capabilities to recycle lithium batteries. At present, smaller lithium ion batteries are shipped to overseas recycling operations in Europe and Asia.

Lithium ion batteries present great opportunities for cleaner and greener cars—but they also present challenges that must be overcome, or addressed by even newer technologies.

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