Lithium is a naturally occurring element found in the earth’s crust and is usually found in mineral deposits, brine pools, and salt flats. Lithium is commonly used for rechargeable batteries, particularly in Electric Vehicles (EVs).
With global EV purchases continually rising, the sudden surge in demand has caused consumer concerns about the resultant demand for lithium, and the availability of this valuable resource, leading many to ask: will the world run out of lithium?
Here’s some insight on this from the experts at Drive Electric.
How much lithium is available globally?
According to data from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, a single EV’s lithium-ion battery pack contains approximately 8 kgs of lithium.
The United States Geological Survey revealed that the world’s identified lithium resources are estimated to be around 79 million metric tons, with the largest reserves in Chile, Argentina, and Australia. The estimated amount of lithium needed to meet current demand is only between 0.5 – 1.3 million tons. However, this figure is expected to increase significantly in the coming years as the demand for lithium continues to rise.
The International Emergency Agency states that by 2040, annual lithium demand could reach 1.3 million metric tons, more than fifteen times the current level.
So, will the world run out of lithium?
Given these predictions, it’s understandable that some may be concerned about the future availability of lithium. However, according to a recent publication in the scientific journal Joule, there is conclusive evidence that the world possesses sufficient raw materials, such as lithium and other battery metals, to continue transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
Most analysts suggest lithium will never see shortages, cartels or sale restrictions that oil does – so really, there is no need to worry about the world running out of lithium – worry about petrol and diesel instead.
Here are several reasons why the world is unlikely to run out of this vital resource.
1. More lithium sources are still being discovered.
Firstly, a significant amount of lithium is still yet to be explored or discovered. While it is true that not all sources of lithium are equally accessible or economically viable to extract, many other regions have yet to be fully explored.
In addition, advances in exploration technology could help to identify new lithium deposits in the future. The US geological survey says these resources are “relatively abundant”. And as Hannah Ritchie, a data scientist at Oxford University, explains, “we keep discovering more lithium, and we get better at mining it,” arguing that those who claim that we are running out aren’t considering technological advancement.
2. Alternative sources of lithium
There is ongoing research into alternative sources of lithium that could supplement or replace traditional lithium reserves. For example, researchers are investigating seawater as a potential source of lithium, which could greatly expand global lithium reserves.
There is speculation about entirely new types of batteries and cell chemistries that would make huge leaps in energy density. Examples of this development include solid-state batteries, lithium sulphur and lithium-air batteries.
As more research into new battery cell chemistries and refining of the current technology takes place, it is likely that EV manufacturers will have more alternatives, with less human or financial cost, thus making the end product EV more accessible, ethical and affordable for consumers.
3. Improved technology
Efforts are underway to increase the production of lithium and improve the efficiency of its extraction and processing. For example, advances in technology have made it possible to extract lithium from sources that were previously considered too difficult or expensive to access. Additionally, new mining projects are underway in countries such as Australia, which has some of the largest lithium reserves in the world, showing how improvements in technology make accessing new sources of lithium possible.
Research into newer battery chemistries in redesigned electronic components (such as denser nickel) that cut usage of scarce and expensive materials is also constant.
In fact, most significant makers of car lithium batteries have set targets to eliminate cobalt (a much more scarce and problematic battery metal) from their chemistry.
One example of battery technology developments is Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries developed for the solar PV industry, which are now being modified for use in EVs by companies like CATL. LFP is an excellent technology for removing the reliance on cobalt.
Some companies have also seen success in using cobalt-free batteries. For example, Tesla reports that nearly half of all its vehicles produced in the first quarter of 2022 use nickel and cobalt-free iron phosphate batteries.
4. Price rises
As demand for lithium increases, prices are likely also to rise, which could incentivise the development of new lithium reserves or alternative technologies. This could also lead to increased recycling of lithium from used batteries, further extending the lifespan of existing resources.
5. Reinventing and recycling
EVs remain a relatively new market, meaning developments with batteries or manufacturing methods may still be ahead that could alleviate potential lithium shortages.
EV batteries are still useful after they live in an EV, primarily for stationary electricity storage, which increases the capacity for renewable energy generation. This use of EV batteries at end-of-life could be extremely beneficial in the New Zealand context, given our target of 93% renewable energy generation by 2023.
As for recycling – the amount of used EV batteries reaching the end of their initial lifespan is expected to surge after 2030, with The World Economic Forum forecasting that an estimated 54 million end-of-life batteries are expected to be recycled by then.
Recycling these batteries could cut lithium supply requirements by about a tenth in 2040. As more research into new battery chemistry and refining of the current EV-related technology takes place, it is likely that EV manufacturers will have more alternatives with less human environmental and financial cost. So, EVs will continue to become more accessible, ethical and affordable for end customers.
How does lithium mining compare to oil mining?
The concern for Lithium mining is minimal when you consider the effects that mining for oil has on the environment and socially. The mining of EV battery metals has emerged as a source of political instability, and the meaning of these resources is often subject to poor environmental and employment practices.
However, the magnitude of EV influence on conflict is still considerably smaller than that of oil production, which has a fraught history in this respect. Ev manufacturers are not deploying new cell chemistry to reduce demand for problematic metals, whereas ICEVs will continue to rely on oil.
The bottom line
While the question of the supply of lithium for EV batteries is a valid one to raise, the abundant supply of lithium means it is unlikely that the world will ever run out of this vital resource.
With ongoing efforts to research alternative sources and technologies, rising prices are all factors that will ensure a steady supply of lithium in the future. As we transition to a more sustainable energy future, the availability of this critical mineral will play an essential role in developing new technologies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.