Do We Have Enough Lithium to Meet Our Future Demands Including Renewables and EVs?

Lithium is not just an evergreen song from Nirvana but is also a very important and special metal. The use of lithium-ion battery technology has challenged the dominance of petroleum with the emergence of Electric cars and is also poised to become a dominant energy storage source of the future, to complement the intermittent nature of renewable power grids. This technology has also enabled us to literally carry our whole world in our pockets by powering our smartphones.

Li-ion batteries have a similar working principle to other batteries. The major difference however is that the electrodes are not as strongly affected by chemical reactions. The Li-ions flow from the negative anode to the positive cathode while discharging and vice-versa when charged. The main reason why Li-ion batteries are so popular is due to their impressive energy density. This enables mobile devices to draw their power from a very small space. Li-ion batteries offer short charging times and can run a high number of discharge cycles before they run out, compared to other battery technologies, such as nickel-cadmium or nickel-metal hybrid.

But on the flip side, Lithium is a finite metal source. Hence, it is important to assess if we have important lithium sources to meet our ever-rising demands with the increasing popularity of Lithium-ion battery-powered EVs and the development of Energy Storage systems to support the grid.
Given its highly reactive nature, Lithium does not occur in its elemental form in nature but is found combined in small amounts in nearly all igneous rocks, in the waters of the many mineral springs and in seawater. Australia is home to the majority of hard rock (spodumene) mines, while brine production is concentrated in South America, mainly in Chile and Argentina. Identified lithium land resources are about 14 million tons. Seawater, which contains 230 billion tons of lithium in total, has recently been paid attention as a possible resource of this element.[1]

Fig 1: A] Projected Lithium Consumption
   B] Known Lithium Abundance

To put these numbers above into perspective for an easier understanding, we provide a simple calculation by calculating the number of Tesla EVs every person on this planet can own (without recycling), assuming that the whole of the 244 billion tonnes of known Lithium is used to manufacture Lithium-ion batteries for EVs. 

An important factor is to understand the content of Lithium in a lithium-ion cell, which is quite small. To understand this, let us consider a Lithium Cobalt Oxide cell (LCO), which is mainly used in the Tesla cars and by Panasonic. The overall lithium content in a high-energy cell is only around 3% by weight. [2]

A Tesla Model S battery pack[3], rated at 85 kWh weighs 1200 pounds[3] or around 545 kgs. Since the amount of lithium is only 3% by weight in a battery, in essence, a single Tesla Model S uses only 16.35 kg (3% of 545 kg) of lithium.

Fig 2: Lithium content per Tesla Battery Pack

If the entire 244 billion tonnes of Lithium (seawater + land)  were to be used by Tesla to create battery packs for the Model S, they could make a whooping 14923 billion EVs which translates to roughly 1913 EVs per person without recycling!!! (population assumed is 7.8 billion).

Fig 3: Calculating how many Tesla’s can each person own


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Source:@Solar_Edition @ScienceDirect @lindaunobel

Fig 1: @Solar_Edition  @ScienceDirect

Fig 2: @Solar_Edition

Fig 3: @Solar_Edition


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