Lithium and Its Limits
Welcome to this series of newsletters on the theme ‘Net Zero by 2050: Technology for a Changing Climate’.
In response to the climate crisis, many business and industry leaders have committed their organizations to a ‘Net Zero’ program. By this they mean that their organization will not be emitting greenhouse gases by a specified date — often the year 2050. The purpose of these letters and posts is to help these leaders by providing realistic and practical information to do with net zero technologies. The emphasis is on the word ‘realistic’. Please use the Subscribe button to keep up to date with our newsletters and posts. Additional information is provided at the Sutton Technical Books site and at our YouTube channel.
Supply and Demand
Classical economics states that supply will always meet demand. If the demand for a resource or product increases then the price of that resource will probably go up, but it is taken for granted that the supply is always there. In other words, supply and demand are fundamentally a financial issue.
One of the themes of the posts at this site is that we have entered a world where this assumption no longer applies. The Earth is finite, as are its resources. As we use up those resources further supply is increasingly constrained by the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Printing money will not make new resources appear out of nowhere. Once they are gone, they are gone.
The usual example of resource limits is that of crude oil and the issue of Peak Oil. However, the concept of physical limits applies to virtually all natural resources. In this post we look at the example of the element Lithium (Li), a critical component of Lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are used to provide power for a wide range of electrical devices, ranging from mobile phones to electric vehicles (EVs). Lithium lies at the heart of most alternative energy programs.
Although large quantities of lithium ore are still available the supplies are finite. In response to this concern, the United States the Department of Energy (DOE) published a report entitled National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries. The date of the report — mid-2021 — indicates that it was written in response to the supply chain crises that became critical in that year. The report provides five goals with regard to critical raw materials. The first of these goals reads,
Secure access to raw and refined materials and discover alternatives for critical minerals for commercial and defense applications.
Table 1 of the report lists four of the critical minerals: lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese. With regard to lithium, the report states that the U.S. has 750,000 (metric) tons of reserves; world reserves are 21,000,000 tons. In other words, the United States has just 3.5% of the world’s lithium reserves, even though it uses a considerably higher percentage than that. The same Table shows that the manufacturing capacity of the lithium resources in the U.S. is 7,470 GWh.
The Table begs a number of questions. For example, what is meant by “reserves”? The concept of ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is used for oil. Presumably a similar concept will apply to lithium. The lowest grade of ores may not be worth the trouble of digging up and refining. In addition, it not entirely clear as to what is meant by the term “manufacturing capacity”.
Putting these questions to one side, we can calculate how many electric vehicles (EVs) the U.S. lithium reserves can provide power for.
The total lithium available provides 7,470 GWh, which is 7,470,000,000 kWh (kilowatt hours).
The Electric Vehicle Database for the year 2021 shows that the average battery capacity for all personal electric vehicles is 59.2 kWh.
If all the lithium is used for these vehicles then the total number of EVs that could be built would be about 126 million.
There are around 290 million registered cars in the U.S. Therefore, the U.S. has only enough lithium to replace about half of its automobiles with EVs. In a world where there are no trade barriers there is no reason for products sold in the U.S. have to use lithium that is mined in the U.S. However, as discussed below, there are signs that international trade may become more difficult.
The number of covered vehicles could, of course, be increased by making the battery packs smaller. But already people are concerned about the range of EVs. Making the batteries smaller would heighten that concern. Also, lithium would be needed for a vast number of other electronic applications, including the systems for generating “green” energy for said EVs.
It is possible that technical developments will reduce the severity of the potential lithium shortage. For example, solid-state batteries use lithium, but they use it much more efficiently. However, these batteries remain at the concept stage, and time is pressing.
There is one other message that the DOE report conveys, and that is to do with trade politics. The very fact that the United States is discussing internal lithium resources indicates that trade barriers between nations are going up, not down.
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