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Lithium Supply Fears Loom Over Electric Vehicle Happy Talk — Or Not, As The Case May Be

Cleantechnica 27 May 2020

Spring has sprung, which means it’s time for another round of guess how much lithium automakers will need to make enough lithium-ion batteries for the electric vehicle of the future, of which there are expected to be many millions on the road within the next ten years or so. Spoiler alert: we’re going to need a lot more lithium mines than we have right now. Or, maybe not.

The Clock Is Ticking On The Electric Vehicle Supply Chain of the Future

The big question is, should auto makers start investing in lithium mines to guarantee their future supply?

Lithium miners certainly seem to think so, because new lithium investors are becoming harder to find  these days. Investors are skittish in part because there is currently an oversupply of lithium and prices have dropped considerably from two years ago.

One example is Finland’s Keliber, which has laid claim to the first lithium mine in the EU. Now it is also claiming to be the first ever mining company to solicit investment from the auto industry.
Alternatively, Keliber is looking to nail down long term supply contracts with automakers.

As for the supply of lithium itself, miners have barely scratched the surface of the global lithium potential. The challenge is to match the mining timeline with the electric vehicle manufacturing timeline. It can take years to start up a new mining operation, and meantime automakers are already gearing up for an electric vehicle recovery after the COVID-19 downturn.

Consolidation in the mining industry and environmental damage are two other areas that will challenge automakers — and other lithium investors — in future years.

All Lithium Roads Lead to More Electric Vehicles

For a deeper dive into the investor angle, check out a new YouTube interview from our friends over at EV Stock Channel.

In the meantime, technology could become the final arbiter of how much lithium mining is needed, and how quickly, for the all-electric personal mobility market of 10 or 20 years from now.

One alternative supply source is evaporated salt brine. A movement is already afoot in that area to replace inefficient (and environmentally damaging) natural evaporation ponds with more efficient technology.
Piggybacking lithium recovery with geothermal energy is another avenue of approach. The US Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been working on a reusable material that would extract lithium from concentrated brine at geothermal plants.

Not for nothing, but researchers estimate that there are 230 million tons of untapped lithium in ordinary seawater. Untapped it will probably remain in the near future, because the concentration of lithium in seawater is extremely low. However, researchers are already looking to the farther future when membrane extraction technology improves.

The Lithium-Free Electric Vehicle Of The Future

Then there’s the circular economy approach, in which lithium could be recovered from spent electric vehicle batteries.

That could be a long time coming, though. Electric vehicle batteries last a long time, and they could last even longer in a second life as stationary energy storage devices.

A whole ‘nother option is to come up with an electric vehicle battery that uses less lithium, or none at all.

After all, cobalt has been a mainstay of EV battery technology, and now it’s on the way out. Ditto for conventional lithium-ion technology, which is all of a sudden being replaced by solid state architecture and a lithium-metal formula.

So, could the electric vehicle of the future be powered by a lithium-free battery?

They will, if fans of sodium-ion batteries get their way. The sodium-ion field has a lot of catching up to do, but a new diagnostic approach developed by researchers at Argonne National Laboratory should help speed things up.

It also depends on what you mean by battery. After all, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles run on electricity, and they don’t use lithium. The passenger car area has been a challenge, but automakers are already beginning to diversify their approach to EV technology by investing in fuel cells for heavy duty vehicles (note: the environmental advantage depends on how quickly renewable hydrogen can replace fossil-sourced hydrogen).

In the category of farther future, flow battery technology could cross paths with hydrogen, if a new refillable version developed by a research team at Purdue University pans out.