Researchers find plentiful lithium resources for electric vehicles, but ignore peak lithium

A group of researchers at the U of Michigan and Ford Motor have concluded there is sufficient resources of lithium for the next 90 years, enough to supply a large-scale global fleet of electric vehicles through at least 2100.  Lithium is a key element in electric vehicle batteries though by no means is it the only element used in batteries, or in the other materials used in building any kind of car much less an electric car.  Plenty of concern has been made of lithium availability and whether there will be “enough” to last for very long, or would we switch to electric vehicles only to run out of lithium in 20 years and be stuck.Hence this sort of study is very valuable.  The researchers surveyed 103 lithium-containing deposits around the world, finding that 32 of them have more than 100,000 metric tons of lithium.  The data included location, geologic type, dimensions, current production status and mroe.  They also created projects of the future demand for lithium based on assumptions of growth scenarios of electric vehicle use.The total demand for lithium was estimated to be in the range of 12-20 million tons per year, depending on assumptions regarding economic growth and recycling rates.The study is only available behind a paywall, but they published extensive supporting data showing the characteristics and locations of all the lithium deposits as well as the demand models they’re considering.  The demand models were a forward projection of lithium needs based on current uses including lubricating greases, frits and glass (whatever that is), air conditioning, aluminum manufacturing, and “other” which must be including batteries. The demand rises over time for most uses (except for aluminum manufacturing) in a reasonable curve.However nowhere in the study material is a “Peak Lithium” issue addressed.  The mining and use of lithium falls into a similar model to what’s affecting the availability of oil, except that lithium is more reusable than oil and we might not see a proper peak lithium effect unlike the peak oil effect that’s basically here right now.

What is peak oil?  It’s the result of mining a resource (fossil oil) and burning it, rendering the oil into a form that’s not reusable or recyclable.  In oil field after oil field around the world they have measured an oil production curve that’s roughly bell curve shaped.  When approximately half the oil in a field has been extracted, it inevitably becomes more difficult and more resource intensive to extract more oil from the field.  This results in inevitable decline of production from the field.  It’s possible to sum the production of all oil fields into one graph, as scientists have done over the years, and come up with projections of when global fossil oil production will peak.  The projections centered around the late 2000’s and you might have noticed we’re now in the 2010’s and are seeing high oil prices with no relief in sight.  That’s due to peak oil.  You might say “Tar sands” and I would say in response that tar sands are an example of the peak oil problem, because it is so expensive to extract oil from tar sands that it’s a resource of last resort.

With lithium however it is not burned while being used and the lithium in a battery can be easily recycled into making new batteries.  This means that as electric cars are built their spent batteries will go into a pool of recycled battery material and be used to make more batteries.It’s very likely that mining lithium from the deposits will fall into the same model of at some point it will become more difficult to mine lithium and production rates from a given deposit will decline.

I don’t know precisely whether this is true for mining lithium as it is true for mining fossil oil.What I’ll do instead is wave my hands around and try to sound intelligent about this 😉 Let’s assume that lithium production will fall into the same sort of issue we see with fossil oil production.  That at some point a lithium deposit will become more expensive to mine than the early years of a given deposit.  “More difficult” or “more expensive” will mean each lithium deposit would decline in production capacity, and there would be a point of decline in global lithium production.  We could call that point in time “peak lithium“.

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It’s not that lithium would suddenly stop being available, it’s that it’s production rate would decline.  Just as peak oil doesn’t mean a sudden stop in oil availability, but instead a decline in production.But thinking this through, peak lithium would have less effect than peak oil does today.  Peak oil is a large effect because oil is burned (destroyed) when used and cannot be recycled.

Lithium on the other hand is not destroyed when used in a battery.  Lithium batteries are highly recyclable.  It means that the existing pool of lithium batteries themselves would be a resource for recycling lithium and constructing new batteries.  Recycling lithium from a battery may or may not be more expensive than extracting lithium from a natural deposit.

However consider that lithium is by no means the only material in a lithium battery, nor in any kind of electric car.  The future supply situation for electric cars is by no means as simple as “will there be enough lithium”.  It is an important consideration, however.Source: Researchers see plentiful lithium resources for electric vehicle batteriesGlobal Lithium Availability A Constraint for Electric Vehicles?

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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