Are Lithium batteries an environmental problem for EVs?

My colleague Sian from We Are Futureproof and I have been sticking our necks out and supporting electric vehicle technology. However, that’s not a position readily shared by many environmental groups or even the Green political party. Several NGO’s are skeptical of progress in general, and remain glued to wholesale demand reduction for cars until we all resort to walking, cycling and taking the bus, as if we will someday see the backside of the automobile. But if we assume that cars will be around a while longer, albeit transformed in design and power train, then we’re all for the transition away from running on liquid fuels to powering up on electrons. And indeed, the transition to the electric vehicle (EV) looks inevitable.

Besides the ever present range issue, where most first generation EVs resemble milk floats or golf carts with a range under 100 miles, there is another slight sticking point that comes up in conversations nowadays and that is around the supply of materials that go into the batteries for electric vehicles. Currently, EV’s use lithium ion batteries, and lithium has been quite expensive.

Much as today’s drivers are hostage to scarce, increasingly costly oil, will tomorrow’s drivers be reliant on scarce, increasingly costly lithium?

According to ecomii.com, around half of an EV’s manufacturing cost comes from its lithium ion battery. Mass adoption of EVs depends largely on improving the competitiveness of their batteries. But lithium is also used in batteries for other electrical technologies including laptop computers, digital cameras and cell phones. As demand rises faster than supply, price increases. Unfortunately the supply of lithium is limited by both geological and political factors.

A Major Source of Lithium

While Lithium is a naturally occurring element, it is a finite natural resource: only so much of it exists in the world. And here’s the crunch point for many environmentalists  – half of the world’s known Lithium supply is located in Bolivia, in a nature reserve.

Shares of global lithium supply by country
Production Reserves
Chile 39.30 percent 22.10 percent
China 13.30 percent 16.20 percent
Australia 11.00 percent 2.40 percent
Russia 10.80 percent n/a
Argentina 9.80 percent 14.70 percent
United States 8.40 percent 0.60 percent
Bolivia 0.00 percent 39.70 percent

Source: Meridian International Research, 2005 levels

Will we endanger the environment as an unintended consequence of our desire to move away from oil?

Some 70% of lithium deposits can be traced to what is known as “The Lithium Triangle”, a tiny area on the borders of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. The other significant supply of Lithium is found in Tibet. China is just now starting to exploit a series of some 33 brine lakes in and near Tibet, again in high, dry and very remote deserts. Their 35,000 ton lithium processing facility could, in time, make them the largest lithium producer on the planet. These are two remote and fragile environments, and any major mining operation would result in irreversible and widespread damage. Extraction of lithium within “the Lithium Triangle” is said to require some two-thirds of the area’s drinking water and Sulphur Dioxide is a major by-product of production. What this means, according to www.sustainableluxury.net, is that like oil, lithium production has a cap and with the growing demand for electronic goods it is estimated that realistic lithium carbonate production will only be able to produce a small fraction of the demand suitable for use in EVs. Demand for batteries is the fastest growing resource request for lithium and we still have not seen a widespread roll out of EVs.

“There is an insufficient supply to accommodate the wholesale conversion of the entire world’s auto industry from internal combustion engines to battery-powered electrics” William Tahil

If there is a marked increase in demand for EV technology, we will hit Peak Lithium like we have hit peak oil. This concern hit the airwaves when a report was released from Meridian International Research, a renewable-energy think tank in France. In 2008 William Tahil produced a report for Meridian, concluding that the world does face a shortage when vehicle demand is added to considerable consumer electronics demand. Estimates of global reserves vary, and Meridian is putting the number at 4 million tons rather than the 20 million cited by many of the more sanguine reports. Tahil says that while increased production can keep pace with EV production of a few million units per year, there is an insufficient supply to accommodate the wholesale conversion of the entire world’s auto industry from internal combustion engines to battery-powered electrics. “There’s enough for a niche market,” Tahil says, “but nothing close to enough for the mass market.”

Nevertheless, many financial analysts who have done studies on the outlook for future Lithium production say that worries about scarcity are overblown. In a blog by allcarselectric.com, Neil Maguire, vice president of business development at Imara Corp., a lithium ion battery startup in Menlo Park, Calif., says supply is sufficient to meet near-term demand. Beyond that, if the volume of electric vehicles soars so much that lithium supplies become an issue, older lithium ion batteries can be recycled for the raw materials in them.

If Not Lithium, What Then?

What about research looking beyond lithium to other materials? in 2005 Meridian researched the various battery technologies for electric vehicles and of all the chemistries it analyzed, sodium nickel chloride and zinc air stood out. The first option, sodium nickel chloride was developed in the 1980s and is known as the ZEBRA battery. In an interview with evworld.com, Tahil characterizes the ZEBRA battery as relatively cheap and proven technology with a potential cost in mass production of $150/kWh compared to $350/kWh for lithium ion. The ZEBRA-class battery also doesn’t require the same level of thermal-runaway protection that lithium does. “The sodium nickel chloride is fail-safe in overcharge and over-discharge. It tolerates cell failures, so that performance degrades, but there is no safety issue, which there still is with lithium ion. Tahil agreed that while nickel is the most expensive part of the battery, it is a metal that is far less constrained than lithium. “It’s a major industrial metal that is mined all over the world. You’re talking an order of magnitude (1000x) more availability of nickel than lithium.”

Another technology to consider is Zinc-Air

Zinc-Air batteries are currently used in hearing aids. According to Tahil, “the great attraction of zinc-air is very high energy density – four-times the energy density of the best lithium ion batteries available. Zinc also happens to be “extremely cheap and extremely abundant.” The chief drawback of zinc-air is its short cycle life, comparable to a conventional lead-acid battery at upwards of 500 cycles. “This is an area where work needs to be done. “But it’s a question of economics and costs, as well,” he continued. Because zinc is so cheap and abundant, it might actually make economic sense to have the battery replaced once a year when the car goes in for service. The zinc oxide can be recycled and reprocessed into new batteries. “There is already a well-established zinc recycling industry.”

What does the future mobility system look like given the resource constraints that we face?

In reading the various reports and blogs, it seems there are a variety of views about Lithium and the potential hazards of mining the resources as well as a potential scarcity of supply. While Lithium is presently the front runner, there is ongoing research in new materials and technologies which could be cheaper and more widely available. None of this research suggests, however, that we should shy away from EVs. Gary Kendall, author of Plugged In: The End of the Oil Age, suggests that the overall point is that electrification is not an option; we have to do it because we need highly efficient, zero-emissions mobility solutions that are compatible with the full range of physical renewable energy technologies. We also have to live within any constraints imposed by nature – that’s true whether we are talking about lithium or carbon.

So, according to Kendall, the right approach to the question is: what does the future mobility system look like given the resource constraints that we face? This is a much more interesting discussion.

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