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Is There Enough Lithium To Feed The Need For Batteries?

Is There Enough Lithium To Feed The Need For Batteries?

For an off-grid solar installation, solar batteries are crucial. Today, most solar batteries are of the lead-acid variety, but lithium ion batteries are becoming more common . And it’s no wonder why: compared to lead-acid batteries, lithium ion batteries boast higher efficiency rates, high energy densities, longer lifespans, and they can be discharged more deeply. These qualities have made them attractive for solar battery producers. Tesla’s Powerwall, for instance, uses lithium ion technology, as does LG Chem’s Energy Storage System .

But solar batteries aren’t the only devices that demand lithium. Lithium ion batteries are in mobile phones, tablets, and electric cars. Even before Tesla waded into the solar battery market, it was pursuing gargantuan amounts of lithium for its Gigafactory , the mega-installation that Tesla hopes can help it achieve its production goal of half a million cars per year by 2018. Meeting this goal will require the equivalent of every lithium ion battery in the world today. Greentech Media has estimated that once Tesla ramps up to full production, the company will require 8,000 metric tons of lithium per year.

Other industry heavyweights are also pursuing lithium. Earlier this year, GM announced it would begin producing two additional electric cars in 2018, then at least 18 other all-electric models by 2023. Ford followed suit and announced it would produce at least 20 electric vehicles by 2023. Both companies use lithium ion batteries in their currently available electric vehicles, and will likely power their next-gen electric vehicles with lithium battery technology, too. Overall, electric car production is expected to increase to 30 times its current rate by 2030, and lithium use will increase correspondingly.

But this growing demand for lithium could exhaust global supplies. Today, the world’s total lithium reserves total 14 million tons. At the current rate of use (37,800 tons per year), that’s enough lithium for over 370 years. But if there were, say, 100 Tesla-scale lithium battery production facilities in operation by 2040, and if annual global auto sales increase from their present rate of 80 million per year to 100 million per year (an assumption that accounts for future population growth and economic development), the world would require around 800,000 metric tons of lithium annually by 2040. At that rate, global lithium reserves would be exhausted after just 17.5 years . And that calculation doesn’t even take into account other uses of lithium (solar batteries, laptop batteries, and so on), which will only further shrink lithium supplies.

Even if manufacturers obtained all lithium “resources” (a category the U.S. Geological Survey uses to describe lithium reserves as well as deposits that are not economically viable, or only potentially accessible through lithium recycling), they would only gain an additional 26 million tons, which would extend automobile battery production capabilities out to 50 years using the metric outlined above.

Clearly, there isn’t enough lithium for all the world’s battery needs. But that doesn’t mean that battery technology is going to stall. According to the USGS , “Substitution for lithium compounds is possible in batteries, ceramics, greases, and manufactured glass. Examples are calcium, magnesium, mercury, and zinc as anode material in primary batteries.”

While supply chains and manufacturing techniques for these potential battery substitutes will need to be developed, battery manufacturers have at least a few decades to do it. And that means that with or without lithium, battery technology-and the sustainable future of electric cars and solar energy storage-isn’t going away.

Kyle Pennell is the Content Manager at PowerScout -- we help homeowners figure out if installing solar is right for them and get competitive bids from multiple installers. Our long-term mission is to accelerate the adoption of solar (and other smart home improvements), which will help mitigate climate change.

Discussions

Lithium can be recycles. Good properly designed battery systems can last 20-30 years in a vehicle and still have 80% capacity left for staionary use. There is a just a small amount of lithium in each battery and it can be recycled. Also as you syggested in the article there are many other chemistires that can be used in future batteries.

 

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