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.
Lithium is found within the brine of salt flats. To get lithium, holes are drilled into the flats to pump the brine to the surface. This enables lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical change.
“We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining,” Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist, told Bloomberg. “The lithium fever should slow down because it’s directly damaging salt flats, the ecosystem, and local communities.”
And lithium isn’t the sole mineral that should concern us: We will also see an increase in the demand for other metals, such as aluminum, copper, nickel, zinc, tin, antimony, cobalt, and rare earth elements used in the production of electric cars.
Can lithium be replaced? Yes — a number of developments point to that: Tesla has announced the discharge of Ryden Dual Carbon batteries, which contain no heavy metals. And in 2016, Stanford announced the development of durable cells without lithium. Other possibilities include carbon nanotubes and graphene batteries or sodium-ion batteries, like the ones developed in France. And a team of scientists from the universities of Alberta and Toronto has even laid out the blueprints for a “quantum battery” that never loses its charge. If they find out a way to build it, it might be a revolutionary breakthrough in energy storage.
However, these innovations have yet to enter production, and at the moment lithium remains at the core of manufacturers’ strategies.