Saturday, May 24, 2008

World Lithium Supplies.

If electric vehicles or their analogous plug-in-electric hybrid vehicles (PHEV) are to become widespread in the face of a lack of cheap oil, some source of battery technology will be necessary to carry the charge to run them. I wrote an article a couple of years ago "Electric Vehicles and World Lithium Supply", October 13, 2006) in which I concluded there was insufficient lithium to fabricate an equivalent of 500 million cars, as was then estimated to be on the roads worldwide, by PHEV's. This was based on the assumption that the world stock of lithium was around 5 million tonnes and that it would take 9 million tonnes to make 500 million PHEV's. For all-electric cars, the situation is worse since they each take four times the amount of lithium that a PHEV would. I did also refer to other kinds of battery technology which use materials that are known to be more abundant.

However, the amount of lithium in the world has now been called into question, and one analyst thinks there is much more of it available [1], mostly based in Chile's Atacama desert, amounting to an economically recoverable total of 28.4 million tonnes. Clearly that would be plenty: enough for 1.58 billion PHEV cars or almost 400 million fully electric vehicles, so the physical amount of lithium is not a problem. There are also sources of lithium in the Andes and in Tibet, along with hectorite (a lithium containing clay) and oil-field brines that contain lithium, albeit more expensive to extract than the mountain-sources, and the material should be recycleable, so for example a direct comparison with the oil the technology is intended to replace is not strictly justified.

The issue is not without contention, however, since another author [2] concludes there are 6.2 million tonnes in reserves of lithium and its reserve base is 13.4 million tonnes.

In my opinion, if all sources of lithium are worked-out there is probably enough of it to go round to make 600 million cars, as there are now. It should be noted that there is an increasing demand for the metal to go into laptop computers and mobile phones, and it is anyone's guess what that total demand might amount to.

However, the latter devices are made out of oil too, and with current roaring prices which I do not expect to fall, along with a near and eventual shortage of oil, I see another limiting factor - raw materials to make plastics from and the lack of money in people's pockets rather than of lithium.

60 million new cars are put on the roads each year and if they were made as PHEV's which might take 18 kg of lithium each, we would need an annual production of 1.08 million tonnes of it. This is around 54 times the present output of lithium (20,000 tonnes), and so that production capacity (mining and processing) would need to be installed (a considerable task). If it could be done, we would be "there" within 10 years. However, will there be enough energy to do the job, and what will these cars actually cost.

Given that I see financial distress for many in the West the car may well be seen as a luxury and by default, we will set-aside our travelling lifestyles in the difficult oil dearth years ahead of us. We don't have 10 years in which to begin reducing oil consumption: we need to do that now. If only we had begun 10 years ago we would have saved massive amounts of oil, and be facing-off a future gap in the supply/demand conundrum, with time in hand. We didn't though, but permitted the market-forces to prevail. The present number of cars replaced by fully-electric vehicles will take 40 years to produce, and again against the backdrop of an energy crunch.

Another potential strife is that some kinds of lithium battery contain a phosphate component and I have discussed recently that there are likely to be problems with mining a finite source of rock phosphate which is mainly used for agriculture. As a rough estimate, assuming one phosphate anion per lithium cation in a lithium-iron-phosphate battery (the strongest contender for EV's) 600 million cars would need around 148 million tonnes of phosphate or about 15 million tonnes a year assuming we could equal the world annual total of 60 million new cars annually. That is to be compared with the total phosphate mined for food production of about 140 million tonnes, and so we would need to sacrifice a good 10% of that, while a hungry population rises.

It isn't going to happen, and to conclude once more, car use will be curbed by a combination of factors, with all that implies for civilization.

Related Reading.
[1] "Peak Lithium." By Bill Moore.
[2] "The Trouble with Lithium." ByWilliam Tahil.


Krassen Dimitrov said...

the big hope is in barrium titaneate supercapacitors, not lithium. A company, EESTOR, is working quietly in that direction. If the claims in their patents get materialized, a supercapacitor with the volume of a regular gas tank will provide you with the same range.

True, it will be ten times heavier, however, you get weight savings from other places in an EV (gear box, engine, lead battery)

EVs are our only hope. Per mile, they consume one fifth the energy of an ICE-based vehicle. For generation it will be solar thermal, nuclear and coal-CCS.

One advantage is that with night charging of EVs, you even the capacity utilization of the system.

For the U.S., for example, one would need 1,000,000 GWh per year extra to offset the entire gasoline consumption, or 25% of current el. consumption.

However, that does not mean that you have to build an extra 25% capacity (that would equate to 250GWpeak). It will be less than that...

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Barium titanate - sounds almost like a superconductor material? I'll look into this Krassen - so thanks! In principle, I agree about EV's being a source of "hope".

I see you are still enthusiastic about algal-diesel. I am too, but I don't know how to get around that phosphorus problem.

I am fearful that we have left it all too late, though, and I am looking into turning this village into a "transition town/village".

I don't see what else we can do, but gear-down our use of transportation and energy generally. We will have to by default if there is insufficient of it!



Anonymous said...

1kWh needs 100gr of Li;
1PHEV needs 1-1,5kgr of Li;
with 9mio tonns of Li (and not a salt of it) you can build 9 billion PHEV;

plz do a better research next time

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

It's hard to get a real consensus on this, ad I have seen figures as low as you say, through 4, 7, 12, and my figure of 18 kg is based on a reader's comment to an article "Japan to encourage next generation electric cars" published on the ev world web-site August 29, 2006. I can't find it there now!

The text was, "Each kWh of battery technology needs about 2 kg of lithium". Hence at 9 kW, I made it 18 kg per car.

But let's suppose you are right at 1.5 kg say. Then, we need just 5 x the total world production rather than 50-odd which is still huge but sounds more manageable in terms of mining and processing. That has to be matched against rising demand for lithium for mobile phones, computers etc., which may well force a gap overall between supply and demand.

I agree - and say so above - that the total amount of lithium in the ground is not likely to be a problem, but it is the rate of recovery that is.

I also recall seeing calculation based on the Nernst Equation for Li which seemde to fit better that 18 kg figure, but I will have to work that one out for myself now as I can't find that either!

This would only be an approcimation bacause real batteries are ess effcient than that, some argue by about 25%.

Do you have a detailed calculations to support your 1 - 1.5 kg figure or have you just taken it from one of the very many websites on the matter?

If you have some figures that would help me very much as I want to get the facts straight here.


Chris Rhodes.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Ah, here we are... it's in comment number 9 to the article, "Each kWh of battery technology needs about 2 kg of lithium": said...

For an up-date on the lithium availability debate see my recent article at: Regards,

Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderón

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Juan!

Thanks for letting me have the link to your most interesting article on lithium supplies.

My feeling is that comparing the amount of lithium needed per PHEV to the total amount available from a mineralogical indicates that the total amount of Li in the Earth is not the problem. Recovering and processing it fast enough might be.

I have trawled through various "facts and figures" about how much lithium is needed per PHEV and simple sums e.g. working through Ampere Hours etc. which indicate these may need less Li than the worst case scenario that I deliberately used here.

It seems to that Tahil thinks we need 1.4 kg of Li2CO3/Wh as opposed to about a third of that as estimated by other analysts. However, Tahil contends that the amount of Li in the electrode materials should be accounted for too. The Li-equivalent of lithium carbonate is 18.9%.

In rough numbers even if Tahil is right then it would take about 0.189 x 1.4 = 0.265 kg/kWh, and if 9 kWh are needed, that's 2.38 kg Li/PHEV.

If there is just 10 million tonnes of Li-equivalent (a lower estimate), that's enough for 4.2 billion vehicles and hence more than enough to supply 700 million as there are now on the world's roads.

However, to match 60 million new vehicles per year (the present number added per year to the world's road transportation fleet) , would require 2.34 kg x 60 million/1000 kg/tonne = 140,400 tonnes of Li-equivalent. That amounts to about seven times the world annual production of lithium and so, as I emphasise in the article above that means a necessary increase in production capacity, although less than the extreme that I used to try and provoke a response of some more sensible figures by someone!

The Tahil figures suggest an increase of around seven times, but the more optimistic estimates based on Ampere Hours etc. would indicate that around double the present production capacity would be necessary - all of course on top of the existing demand for Li which is likely to rise for computers, cell-phones etc. But it does begin to look more manageable.

I would like to tie-down the business of exactly how much Li is needed per PHEV, as it is such an important issue given the potential resource and financial investment in PHEV and BEV (which would use four times the amount of Li per vehicle assuming 35 kWh capacity rather than 9 kWh for the hybrid vehicle).

I think that production and fabrication along with the car-engineering could constitute a bottleneck for the development of this technology but it might be possible.

Do you have any further thoughts regarding the cell-technology and electrode composition and total amount of Li required - re Tahil?



Anonymous said...

Lithium Supply-Demand 2020 / Lithium Metal Market Study -

TRU has undertaken long range 2020 lithium supply-demand market forecasts. The project was a major assessment employing our team of lithium supply side and demand side experts. The supply analysis was in detail for both brine and minerals [mainly spodumene]. It included a forecast of the main basic lithium chemicals - lithium carbonate, lithium chloride and lithium hydroxide. The demand side analysis included lithium consumption in batteries, lubricants, glass / glazing / ceramics, air conditioning, pharmaceuticals, polymers, metal alloy, and other applications. The outlook included demand in electric vehicles [including a detailed examination of EV and HEV, PHEV, PEV battery technology innovation and the readiness of lithium cell technology for this application]. In a separate assessment, TRU staff managed a review of markets for lithium metal including batteries, Al-Li alloys and organo lithium compounds. Lithium metal [high & low sodium Li] and li alloy competitors were positioned, prominent butyllithium producers identified, and recommendations on development and market entry strategies put forward.

Anonymous said...

TRU Group Inc announces results of its updated long range Lithium supply-demand forecast - Lithium industry not immune from effects of global recession

TRU Group Inc, Toronto ON, Tucson USA - Lithium consultants TRU Group Inc says that its updated lithium outlook for presentation Tuesday at the IM Lithium Supply & Markets Conference Santiago 2009 will conclude that the industry is not immune from the global recession and will be pushed into oversupply this year through 2013. Global use of lithium will decline sharply by at least 6% in 2009 and demand is unlikely to bounce back any time soon as consumers put off buying laptops or cell phones containing lithium batteries. This is bad news for an industry accustomed to strong sustained growth over many years.

TRU president Edward Anderson commented that “an outlook presentation of this type is very unusual for us because all of our work is client confidential. However, Mitsubishi Corporation who commissioned the original analysis has authorized TRU to release some of the material”. The techno-economic analysis and supply-demand forecast is a major in-depth assignment conducted by the TRU Lithium Team made up of the world’s top technical experts on lithium production and extraction on the supply side, as well as our highly specialized industry analysts on the demand side. Impacts of recent advances in lithium extraction technology (for example, in selective ion adsorption, electrodialysis, and nanofiltration) are considered.

It is likely now that some expansions and new projects will be delayed or cancelled until market conditions improve. The long range however remains bright because new and large uses for lithium will start having a major impact on demand within the five year horizon: Lithium use in electric vehicle batteries and lithium alloys for aircraft. TRU forecasts that demand will be strong and sustained in these two segments over the long term 2020. The industry does need at least one of the announced pipeline production projects to come into production and also could do with another new project as the market tightens around 2015-2017. New lithium producers still will need to be cost competitive with existing salt lake brine based producers in South America and China. Emerging technology may make some of the undeveloped medium sized (brine) lithium resources quite attractive. Certainly the industry through expansion and development of new resources will have no problem meeting demand.

TRU Group Inc based in Toronto, Canada and Tucson, USA are industrial management and engineering consultants with a strong capability in lithium project development. The firm is a world leader in resource evaluation, salar exploitation, brine & mineral lithium extraction and processing technologies - those in use, prospective, and leading edge. TRU has evaluated and modeled most of the known existing lithium properties and advised a number of players on a wide variety of lithium resource, engineering, process, business and investment issues. The TRU website is and the presentation will be posted on the site after the conference on January 27, 2009 at the link

Edward R. Anderson
President& CEO
TRU Group Inc
Tucson 520-575-0674
Toronto 416-935-1754
Cell 1-520-229-78336

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Dear Trugroup,

thanks for this very useful information: coming from the horses mouth it is very telling about the state of play in the lithium industry.

Best regards,

Chris Rhodes.

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