Lithium is a critical component in the effort to transition to a more sustainable global economy as it is used in the lithium batteries of electric vehicles.

Lithium produces the simplest pair (energy density, weight) so it is very efficient. A cobalt Li-ion battery stores twice the maximum amount of energy as a nickel-based battery and four times the maximum amount as a lead-acid accumulator. A good battery features a high capacity, an extended cycle length (charge-discharge), and excellent thermal stability. On top of that, it doesn’t degrade quickly and it is inexpensive to make.

The market for electric vehicles will explode to 20 million plug-in units sold per year by 2030. The battery of the Tesla Model S has about 12 kilograms of lithium in it. This will significantly increase the demand for lithium in the future. The metal has already doubled in price over the past few years. According to Cairn Energy Research Advisors, a consultancy, the lithium-ion industry is expected to grow from 100 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of annual production in 2017, to almost 800 GWh in 2027.

But there’s a drag. As the world scrambles to exchange fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding and extracting the lithium needed to enable this transformation could become severe.