Friday, October 13, 2006

Electric Vehicles and World Lithium Supply.

In an effort to break the West's dependency on oil, particularly that imported from the Middle East, electric vehicles might appear to offer a significant advantage. However, electricity (like hydrogen) is an energy carrier not a fuel, since it must be first manufactured using a primary fuel such as gas, oil, coal or uranium. There are various renewable resources - in the U.S. hydro power accounts for about 10%, far more than in the U.K. - but these are mostly untried technologies on the large scale, but which will inevitably become more important as oil and gas supplies begin to wane. The main problem with electricity is that it must be stored, most effectively using some form of battery technology, rather than mechanical devices e.g. flywheels. The traditional and conventional means is the "car battery", or some adaptation of it, based on the "lead accumulator" principle. This involves a reversible electrochemical reaction, which can produce electricity, but may be reversed by the absorption of electrons, and so like any other rechargeable battery it may be charged by plugging into the mains or using an on-board generator. Other (lighter weight) batteries based on lithium (lithium ion) are considered to be more suitable for electric vehicles on a number of counts. My immediate thought when an electric vehicle is mentioned is the "milk float" or "golf cart", but such locomotive devices have reached profound levels of sophistication, and to all intents and purposes easily match the speed and other qualities we expect from an internal combustion engine powered car. The half-way-house is the hybrid vehicle which uses a combination of an internal combustion engine run on gasoline and a parallel source of electric power, e.g the Prius. In his comment to my recent posting "Bioethanol - The Math" mcrab has included a link describing the virtues of the Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV), which as he says can in principle cut back the transportation fuel demand by 80%, requiring a relatively modest increase in electricity production by 13%. I endorse this wholeheartedly, but note that the fundamental feature of this and all other electric vehicles is the central electron storage system. Lighter weight lead - sulphuric acid batteries than the conventional accumulator type are being developed and there is plenty of lead left in the world. For example, if we take the current number of cars at 500 million (I think the total number of road vehicles in the world is around 700 million - that's cars, lorries, buses, everything, but let's just stick to cars), we would need about 150 kg (per car) x 500 x 10*6 = .15 tonnes x 500 x 10*6 = 75 million tonnes of lead. I believe there is certainly 1.5 billion tonnes of lead in known deposits, so there is plenty to go round.
Lithium ion batteries (the current favourite) are costed in energy terms at 2 kg of lithium per kwh of battery (specific energy). The PHEV is rated at 9 kwh and so each car would need 18 kg of lithium. Hence, 500 million PHEV's would require:

18 kg x 500 x 10*6 = 9 x 10*9 kg = 9 million tonnes of lithium.

The entire world reserve of lithium ( accounted in the form of lithium oxide, Li2O) is 10.74 million tonnes, which contains (worked at an abundance of 92.5% lithium-7 and the rest lithium-6):

2 x [(7 x .925) + (6 x .075)] x 10.74 x 10*6/2 x [(7 x .925) + (6 x .075)] + 16 = 4.98 x 10*6 tonnes; call it 5 million tonnes of lithium.

Obviously there is not enough!

We could argue naively that there is sufficient to propel 278 million cars (i.e. around half the world's fleet) adapted into PHEV's, but this would conflict with the interests of nuclear fusion (if they ever get it off the ground) which could only run for about 300 years, and so it would be a question of lithium to make electricity or to store it inside cars to get any actual mileage from it! Since, as I have argued before, nuclear fusion will not come to our aid before oil and gas run out, we can forget about this point, but I make it to stress that the same (limited) resources are often impacted upon competitively by different kinds of technology and it is as well to be aware of the fact.

If we wanted fully electrically powered cars, with a power demand of 36 kwh (over the 9 kwh reckoned for a PHEV), then we would need to reduce that figure by a factor of four (36/9) leaving us with just under 70 million cars in the world. These figures are an absolute maximum, as of course, there are many other uses for lithium batteries, eg. heart pacemakers, pocket calculators, computers and cameras etc. etc.

Undoubtedly, advances in battery technology will improve the situation, and there is talk of "aluminium" batteries, but these are well at the research stage and may come to nothing in any practical sense. An alternative kind of battery is the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) type, which needs around 7 kg of nickel per kwh = 7 x 9 = 63 kg of nickel per 9 kwh PHEV. So, if we work the math again over 500 million cars, we get:

500 x 10*6 x 63 = 3.15 x 10*10 kg = 31.5 million tonnes of nickel. Since the world reserves of nickel are reckoned to be 62 million tonnes, that would be in principle O.K.

However, a bottleneck to implementing a new technology is the production rate of raw materials, and I note that 5 million tonnes of nickel is produced each year. If half that quantity were turned over to battery production for PHEV's, you could produce:

2.5 x 10*6 x 1000 kg/63 kg = 40 million vehicles per year, and thus the full fleet of 500 million PHEV adapted cars could be got up and running in 12.5 years! They are wonderful things, numbers and statistics, and behind them lie the practicalities of the matter at hand, which appear to point to a greatly reduced car fleet within the foreseeable future, whatever means we try to implement to keep them on the road... in some form or another, fuel powered, hybrid or fully electric, or some combination of different kinds of vehicle. If we were to reduce the number of cars by 90% (i.e to a world fleet of 50 million), as I have suggested previously, via living in localised communities "pods", we would have sufficient bioethanol and other renewable fuels, electrification and other means to survive the choppy slide down from peak oil production. It is the social paradigm that matters most, which must accommodate whatever technology becomes or remains accessible; our thinking must adapt because maintaining the status quo of energy use is impossible.


MCrab said...

Hi Chris,

As I've discovered in my investigations into nuclear power and uranium, reserve figures can be misleading. There is the tendancy to think of them as the sum total of material available in the Earth's crust. In reality, they describe identified deposits that can be economically mined at the current price.

Currently around 20,000 tonnes of lithium are mined each year, meaning that the US Geological Survey's figure of 11 million tonnes equates to a reserve of centuries at today's usage. It occurs at around 50ppm in the crust, making it more common than lead or tin and about ten times as abundant as uranium (uranium, for comparison, has estimated reserves of 4 million tonnes). With increased demand and a rise in its price it is therefore reasonable to conclude that reserves will grow with time. Indeed, this is what the historical data show: an 8.4 million tonne reserve in 1996, 9.4 million tonnes in 2001, and 11 million tonnes in 2006.

In order to facilitate the necessary advances in battery technology and increased extraction of minerals such as lithium, we need to be encouraging the adoption of hybrid cars at a greater rate. As we discussed on a previous thread, these could reduce liquid fuel use in transportation by up to 50% alone and could be converted to plug-in hybrid vehicles (giving a projected 80% drop in l.f. use) at a later date when greater capacity batteries are available.

Your idea of small, localised "pods" is a comforting fallback option when considering the problems caused by peak oil. Indeed, it is already occuring in the UK in a small way as people are moving back into the city centres in increasing numbers. However, the loss of freedom, mobility and choice inherent in the scheme makes it a far less desirable way of life than the one we currently enjoy. Speaking personally, I would give up many other things before sacrificing my car. Thankfully, technology may mean I won't have to. :)


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Martin,

I agree that the reserve is economically based, and should demand rise then in principle more could be extracted. The question then becomes, at what point in energy terms is a source no longer economic. For example there *are* 4 million (known) tonnes of uranium, but even that ore becomes steadily poorer, and more energy intensive to mine and process (i.e. using more gas and oil to do it, perhaps past the break-even point where extraction costs more than is finally yielded by the fuel). Certainly it would be necessary to produce more lithium than is done currently to bring the PHEV fleet on line, which would require more infrastructure to do the job. Even if the current lithium output were doubled (to make an extra 20,000 tonnes) it would take 50 years to get enough to convert 10% of the world's car-fleet to PHEV? And that against the backdrop of the oil running out. So, less cars does look like a certainty whatever we do. The pods could be linked by electric tram systems, so the isolation might not be quite as extreme as it could be. I agree with you entirely, that all countries should "get cracking" in their exploration of such alternative technologies, especially if it means that a brake is thereby applied (so to speak) to the oil depletion, therefore buying more time for further innovation. Most frightening to me are the predictions that the world population will eventually fall to around 2 billion (from 6.5 billion now), and any measure that smoothes that very rough ride down the short side of Hubbert's Peak will be very welcome, I'm sure! As I said before, I'm not too keen on a return to the stone age, but I think we will suffer less through some voluntary plan toward a lower-energy society. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that little will happen until oil is severely depleted and maybe there is too little left to satisfactorily implement new and renewable technologies that we should be exploring now!

Thanks again for your feedback!


MCrab said...

"there *are* 4 million (known) tonnes of uranium, but even that ore becomes steadily poorer, and more energy intensive to mine and process (i.e. using more gas and oil to do it, perhaps past the break-even point where extraction costs more than is finally yielded by the fuel)."

Although it may be off-topic for this thread, I have to call you on this assertion, Chris. Wherever I've seen this claim made it is always (and I do mean always) traceable back to a paper produced by two gentleman called Storm van Leeuwen and Smith. The main thrust of their paper is that uranium becomes EROEI negative at about 0.02% ore grade. They base this conclusion on data from two papers on uranium mining from the seventies and use it to deduce a formula predicting the energy cost of mining uranium of a certain grade. However, when applied to existing low grade uranium mines, this formula massively overestimates energy use. In the case of the Rossing mine in Namibia, with an ore grade of 0.035%, the annual energy use predicted by van Leeuwen and Smith (VLS) is 80PJ, compared with the actual measured value of 1PJ - an overestimate of almost two orders of magnitude! Namibia as a whole only used around 50PJ of energy in 2001. A similar discrepancy occurs when considering the Olympic Dam mine in Australia, which also includes a copper smelter in its energy statistics.

When I first encountered the arguments of VLS they seemed very plausible and made me question my previous support for nuclear power. Their paper, however, (never published in a peer reviewed journal, by the way) fails the ultimate test of any scientific thesis - comparison with reality. If you take a look at some of their underlying assumptions - 27 year full power life for nuclear reactors, only diffusion enrichment considered, building costs of reactor listed as twenty times greater than measured values - it becomes hard not to suspect that they started out with a conclusion and cherry-picked their data to minimize the power produced by nuclear and maximise the energy inputs.

As I stated at the start, this is all offtopic, but nuclear power can, will and must play an increasing role in our energy generation over the coming century.

Will post a bit more on batteries later.


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I am neither for nor against nuclear power per se, and I have no doubt it will become used increasingly as part of the final energy mix (see my very first posting in December 2005). I feel the same way about cars, both have their obvious benefits but when things go badly wrong, i.e a crash, or a Chernobyl the result can be very bad indeed. I'm sure that the accepted 4 million tonnes is viable for extraction. Indeed, uranium has not been explored for to the same extent as oil, say, and hence there may be more relatively rich deposits found. Soil, on average contains around 2 ppm of uranium (thorium is about 6 ppm), rising to 50 - 1000 ppm in soils associated with phosphate rocks. So, these might become viable too, but the energy costs to work them will rise. In the US you are likely to continue to be supplied with uranium by Canada (in the UK, we get ours from a central European stock obtained from Russia/ Kazakhstan, I believe). Most of the mining and processing depends on gas and oil, and if the latter begins to run out (get more expensive), then there could be a limit set in that respect, and not just by relative energy considerations. Ultimately, e.g. extracting uranium from sea-water (unless some very selective ion-exchange process is perfected), the energy costs for extraction must outweigh those returned (EROEI). 0.035% is 350 ppm, right?, so could we work your factor of 80 and say that ores down to just a few percent of uranium would still return more energy (EROEI) than that of the fossil fuel used for the processing. I think there are many complex factors here, and it would be worthwhile to try and "do the math" from first principles, to see at what point the EROEI does indeed fail. I suspect, however, that the politics of oil and gas supply might well fail first, depending on the geopolitical situation eg. in Saudi if that government should fall? I feel that ultimately we will be pitching a declining resource (oil particularly) against uranium/ nuclear power. How long that will take to bite is anybody's guess. Did VLS cherry-pick their data? If they did they wouldn't be the first, probably, even if it was done inadvertently. Of course, fast-breeder technology is the way to eke-out whatever uranium there is available, making it go potentially 60 times longer, although there is much nervousness about the safety of breeder reactors. Thorium is another possibility, since it avoids many of the "bomb" possibilities of plutonium, and the technology can be used conveniently to destroy existing stockpiles of plutonium and hazardous actinides. We seem to be panning for various forms of energy, but some clear information as to what precisely e.g. the U.K. intends to do would be both encouraging and helpful. The best I can glean from the U.K. government is that they are going to go for some new nuclear reactors, as part of the final "cocktail". I would put money on coal becoming more important as a raw fuel, though supplying hydrocarbons for transporation and as a chemical feedstock for industry
from coal is a pretty daunting task!


HarleyDave said...

Lithium Availability: Like oil, the amount of lithium on (or in) the earth is finite. Unlike oil, since we are not burning it, the lithium used in batteries is recyclable (see for a company doing this today) which should help with both availability and cost. I am a proponent of an “Electric Economy” generated from clean sources including nuclear (or “nucular” as our president likes to call it). This is the topic of my blog at:


granny said...

Nuclear is dirty dirty dirty, getting it out of the ground and disposing of it. Take it off your list! It is not "clean"!

jon said...

Just an FYI. There's some new data on world Lithium supply and reserves:

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Joninaz.
Very interesting - and more optimistic than I thought. I'll digest and write an update!


Anonymous said...

we will have cars and more cars if we adapt methanol as a transportation fluid fuel

it is cheap and totally renewable

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Methanol? Yes, I have read a lot about this, and I have George Olah's book on the subject. He recommended that I read it!

We would need to produce massive amounts of H2 and plant capacity to reduce CO2 to methanol, though, via the reverse-water-gas-shift reaction. I think other sources of methanol might prove more practical. The direct electrochemical reduction methods are still at the research stage an give mixed products, mostly not methanol.

I like the idea, but making the equivalent of that 70% of 30 billion barrels worth of oil each year, in terms of methanol, would be a monumental undertaking.

Do we have time to build at the scale suggested in that linked-article, before the oil-crisis really begins to bite and there is a growing gap between demand and supply?

I agree with you in the link, it is as though we are on the verge of a war. Wars are always fought over resources, and this is no exception... needing to mobilise resources to gain more.

It would be best if all humanity fought on the same side in this one, however, rather than against one another.


Chris Rhodes.

Anonymous said...

Please could you document the statement "2 kg of lithium per kWh"? 18 kg of Li in one PHEV would mean 250 kg of LiCoO2 (active cathode material)or 150 kg Co. Typically, Co is about 15 % in a Li-ion battery. This would mean that the battery has a total weight of 10000 kg.
Personnaly, I think the statement should be "2 kg of active cathode material per kWh". Then, the total battery weight wout be about 70 kg. This looks to be more realistic.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Dear Jan,

thanks for your comment. There is a follow-on updated version of this article:

and if you look at the discussion esp. comment [9], I may have overestimated the amount of Li needed per battery. It's a hard number to find consensus on but "Duncan" seems to know what he's taking about.



Cyril R said...

Conventional li-ion will use about 1-2 kg of lithium metal per plugin hybrid.

Lithium isn't a source of energy generation when we are considering electric vehicles so EROEI is not that important. More relevant is cost, and lithium is cheap. 10x today's prices will only add a relatively small amount to the total price tag of a car; but that will greatly increase the economics of lithium deposits, freeing up more lithium to be economically extracted and also providing an incentive for opening up mines much faster.

This is very unlikely to be a major problem.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Thanks Cyril.

My point is there is still a relatively long time to install anything close to some 600 million oil-fuelled vehicles worth of electric-cars. can it be done in time to replace them in the face of more costly/scarcer oil?

Regarding EROEI, the energy costs for producing lithium will increase with the rising price of oil etc. which must happen.

Overall, I envisage far fewer personal vehicles.



TRU said...

There is an authoritative long range lithium supply-demand forecast 2020 in a slide show posted on the TRU website. The demand projection is by end-use and the supply by state of development of various lithium projects including Bolivia’s Uyuni and lesser known Taijnar China (CITIC and QingHai). There is also a forecast for electric vehicles sub-segmented by type. The paper was presented at the major IM Santiago Lithium conference in January 2009.

TRU Group Inc – Lithium Consultants

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

That's very helpful from TRU.

This is an old article of mine and I have seen figures since that there is more lithium to be had.

I posted an update on

However, it is the "rate of conversion" problem that I allude to Cyril - i.e. it will take a long time to make enough electric vehicles compared to how many cars 600 million there are on the world's roads.

A Greener Shade of Geek said...

Interesting article, but a bit out of date.

1 million tonnes of lithium is enough for 250 million 24KWh batteries. That is roughly 1/4 the current global reserve. Of course that large a battery is quite a bit larger than what you were speaking of in 2006, but it would work nicely for a 40 mile range PHEV. 1 million tonnes of lithium is the amount estimated to be available in Bolivia in one site alone, or 3 new surveyed sites in China. Plus don't forget that seawater contains quite a bit of Lithium Chloride.

The other side of the equation is that Lithium isn't transmuted in batteries -- it would be recycled and reused. I'm sure that a long time ago someone felt there wasn't enough lead on earth to provide car batteries either.

The reason there isn't much surplus lithium supply isn't that it can't be found, its that there isn't much need for it -- yet.

However a rapid conversion to PHEV or EV would certainly be constrained by the lithium supply which would take a few years to ramp up.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Yep, I wrote it 4 years ago so I guess it is a bit out of date now!

Agreed there is plenty of lithium worldwide especially if you include the seas, but extracting it takes energy and new infrastructure.

It is the infrastructure/engineering that is the issue. Like some sources of unconventional oil, it is a rate-of-recovery/flow/conversion problem.

More demand for electric vehicles will stimulate further exploration and production of Li but supplanting 600 million oil-powered vehicles by electric is an almost impossible task.

There is also some ambiguity over resources that are described as "lithium" but are actually lithium carbonate etc. Hence the latter looks to be around 10x as much "elemental" lithium as there really is.

I think the overall prognosis is for a steep decline in the number of cars and the inevitable relocalisation of communities. Essential links by electrically-powered transport might come more readily in the form of light railway networks.

Thanks for all this information.


Chris Rhodes.

Unknown said...

The electric car in a great innovation nowadays, i think is a goop option not only to save money even more now the fuel is very expensive, but it could work to save our planet of the pollution environment. i think costa rica investment opportunities must be approach.

Green Parks said...

Hello.. Firstly I would like to send greetings to all readers. After this, I recognize the content so interesting about this article. For me personally I liked all the information. I would like to know of cases like this more often. In my personal experience I might mention a book called Green Parks Costa Rica in this book that I mentioned have very interesting topics, and also you have much to do with the main theme of this article.

unbrako distributors said...

I have a feeling that the people who are making lots of money in the oil industry are intentionally delaying the switch to alternative energy sources. This technology is long due and it is possible to make them cheaper than petroleum powered gas for example, but things are rolling suspiciously too slow.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

This is quite an old article now. You may be right, but there is a problem in making millions of electric vehicles to replace oil-fuelled cars etc.

e.g. In the UK there are 34 million cars on the roads and so even if we made one million a year it would take over 3 decades by when the price of oil will be huge and supplies of it waning.

I doubt we could make so many, especially given the issue of rare earth metals and the shortage of them as a wildcard, and so if we what to move people around by electricity, the way might be to forget about poersonalised transport on a similar scale and to concentrate on light rail and tram systems, i.e. mass transport.


Chris Rhodes

cement mixer said...

Hi Chris, I think the path inventors need to do now is to make a better battery where it can store more energy with much less lithium. If we can have a solution to that then we can create a lot of cars that are fully electric powered.

Unknown said...

I most appreciate the description of hydropower from the United States Department of Energy, “Water constantly moves through a vast global cycle, evaporating from lakes and oceans, forming clouds, precipitating as rain or snow, then flowing back down to the ocean.
hydro electric
hydro electric power
what is hydro electric
power generator
wind power generator
solar and power
electric transportation
Visit the website and get more information =>

alke vehicles said...

This article makes us think about some very important considerations. The oil, the gas and fossil fuels in general are becoming scarce and polluting. Resorting to the use of electric vehicles, the situation is improved only in part, because most of the electricity produced today still comes from fossil fuel power plants and also because the lithium used for batteries may be insufficient in the coming years. One solution would be the use of renewable energy sources (solar and wind) to produce electricity. It is also important to look for alternative materials to lithium, also developing smaller batteries with more storage capacity.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

This article is quite (7 years) old now, but the essential point are much as you say, although there are developments underway in battery technology.

It is however true that the majority of electricity is made still from fossil fuels, and in regard to obtaining the required materials, lithium or other, it is the rate of production that matters more than the size of the reserve.

Certainly, there has to be enough to be had in the first place, but it is the size of the tap not the tank, i.e. the rate of conversion that determines how fast a new technology can be implemented.

So, for over one billion road vehicles, as there are globally, replacing them by electric versions would be a stupendous and slow task. Mass transit is the more realistic future of electric transport than personal electric cars.

This is going to change society and we are again forced to confront the prospect of a more localised than a global human civilization.

Anna Schafer said...

The main problem with electricity is that it must be stored, most effectively using some form of battery technology, rather than mechanical devices e.g. flywheels. The traditional and conventional means is the "car battery", or some adaptation of it, based on the "lead accumulator" principle. 300W AC/DC Switching Adapter

Anna Schafer said...

The main problem with electricity is that it must be stored, most effectively using some form of battery technology, rather than mechanical devices e.g. flywheels. The traditional and conventional means is the "car battery", or some adaptation of it, based on the "lead accumulator" principle. 300W AC/DC Switching Adapter

mikel said...

You’ve got some interesting points in this article.I would have never considered any of these if I didn’t come across this.Thanks!used toyota fortuner cars for sale

Eliza Beth said...

Die Auswahl eines Elektrikers scheint ein einfacher Prozess zu sein, der schnell online oder über das lokale Unternehmensverzeichnis erfolgen kann. Dies ist jedoch weder eine Garantie für die Qualität noch eine Garantie für ein gutes Preis-Leistungs-Verhältnis, wenn es um Ihre spezifischen Bedürfnisse oder Anforderungen geht. elektro notdienst

Unknown said...

I have read your full post and I want to say that this is a very nice blog with beautiful images thank you to share this.
Battery Operated Cart

MAXX said...

In some cases, they'll be just that. confirm you discover out if the battery is new or refurbished. Also, very inexpensive batteries may have very old manufacturing dates. you would like to seem for a mobile battery with a comparatively new manufacturing date.
professional battery manufacturer

james smith said...

An exceptionally pleasant blog for this sort of subject, brimming with each sort of data. In the event that you need to peruse more on these connected subjects, check this site upcoming new car in india

james smith said...

An extraordinarily charming web journal for this kind of subject, overflowing with each kind of information. If you need to scrutinize more on these associated subjects, you can see us at upcoming car india

pravindra said...

Century battery delivery and installation services nearest you. Just a phone call away or WhatsApp. We will come to your place immediately to rescue.... For further information please click below links

Agm car battery

Unknown said...

Really nice information thanks for sharing very useful....... For more visit e-Bus system planning

Marco Jones said...

Thanks for such an informative post. You have mentioned the amazing fact. your articles are always amazing. keep posting! side by side and golf carts

James Smith said...

I have read your full post and I want to say that this is a very nice blog .
if you save money on fuel and get unlimited gascash offers at gas stations, just install the app and sign up for free, find gas stations near you and get credits Use your credit, or share it with family, easily using the Gas Credit app in usa.