Editor’s Note: This post is a response to Anthony Cefali’s recent article “Where We’re Going We Won’t Even Need Lithium: A Neurotic Look at Our Energy Future.”
Recently, fellow Gas 2.0 author Anthony Cefali wrote an excellent post questioning the sustainability of lithium-ion batteries into the future due to concerns over the supply of lithium.
In this world, it’s easy to argue that one can never be too neurotic about our future, as our species has repeatedly shown a lack of foresight into the consequences of its actions. However, in this case, I must argue against his views on lithium’s sustainability. Lithium-ion batteries will only be superceded by superior technology, not by lithium shortage.
Anthony’s primary concern is that while we have gone through resources in a manner of exhausting one source and then finding another one, that this cannot be considered a reliable way to produce resources. Indeed, he is correct on the history of humankind’s interaction with natural resources.
Southern Arizona is dotted with copper mines of almost unfathomable scale, gaping holes in the ground bored to extract copper in hundreds of parts-per-million quantities. Yet natives in parts of the midwest hammered tools out of “native copper“, found in sizable nuggets in pure form just sitting on the ground around Lake Superior.
The purest deposits of any resource are incredibly rare. The next best are an order of magnitude more common, and the next best an order of magnitude more common still, and so forth. The poorest deposits make up most of the 50-68 ppm copper that composes the Earth’s crust. Yet the lithosphere alone — the uppermost layer of the Earth’s crust — is about 10^21 kilograms, which means about 60,000,000,000,000 (60 trillion) metric tonnes of copper.
In short, the upper limit on most mineral resources is, for all practical purposes, unbounded, and more importantly, the scaling factor on such resources is toward geometric growth of reserves. That is, to say, if you double the price, you don’t double the amount of available resource — you 5x, 10x, 20x, 100x it. If you halve the production cost due to advancing technology, again, you don’t double the reserves; you increase it by orders of magnitude. The scaling factors are thus greatly biased in favor of continuing production, as was demonstrated in the Simon-Ehrlich Wager.
This is the great lie of reserves figures; reserves figures for a resource reflect only upon the amount of that resource that can be produced at current prices with current technology. This applies to virtually any resource. If you were in Namibia in the 1980s and were only willing to pay a tenth of a penny per gallon for water, there wouldn’t be much I could have sold you. But if you had been willing to pay several cents a gallon, I could have sold you all the oceans in the world’s worth due to desalination. And today, thanks to advancing technology, I could do that for half a penny per gallon or less.
Let’s get back to lithium. First off, what you should know about lithium is that it’s not actually rare. In the crust, it’s more common than lead, which everyone knows from ever-common lead-acid batteries. Furthermore, it’s concentrated, largely in salt flats. Certain salt flats are richer than others, but rare is a completely lithium-deficient playa. Lithium is so cheap and easy to produce that lithium carbonate (the primary traded form) costs only about $8 per kilogram. This is up significantly from $4.50 per kilogram just a few years ago, but is still so cheap that almost as much is used in lithium greases as is used in our billions-of-cells-per-year lithium ion battery industry.
So, right off the bat, you automatically have the ability to displace less profitable uses of lithium — greases, polymers, air conditioning, lithium-aluminum, glasses, and various others — which make up almost 80% of world lithium consumption. But even with the recent “spike” to current lithium carbonate prices, we can already witness the expansion of lithium reserves.
Older reserves figures don’t include, for example, the Kings Valley in Nevada, a mine that’s now expected to produce 25 billion pounds of lithium carbonate. That’s what many “peak lithium” advocates claim the world’s entire reserves of lithium comprise because they don’t include the deposit at all, despite the fact that 173 boreholes to a depth of 40 meters over 80,000 acres determined an average lithium content of 0.279% and a commercial recovery factor of 85%. This is just one mine we’re talking about, and that’s enough lithium carbonate to produce the cells for almost 800 million 10kWh (Aptera-sized) battery packs.
And that brings us to yet another issue: the fact that lithium ion batteries, despite the name, just really don’t use that much lithium. About 1.4 kilograms of lithium carbonate are needed per kilowatt hour of lithium-ion batteries. A kilowatt hour of bulk lithium ion batteries costs $300 to $500. Hence, lithium carbonate costs only make up 1/30th to 1/50th the cost of the cells! The price could increase tenfold and you’d barely notice the difference.
The most expensive element in traditional lithium ion batteries is actually the cobalt in their cathode, which generally makes up about 60% of the cost of a lithium-ion battery (most of the rest being amortization of capital costs). Yet many modern “automotive” li-ion batteries, such as lithium iron phosphate or the magnesium-based spinel batteries, ditch cobalt in its entirety. Hence, the long-range price trend for lithium ion batteries is downward.
I did, however, save the kicker for last. You see, lithium naturally likes to form water-soluble salts; hence, it’s the 11th most common element in the ocean. It’s even more common there than phosphorus, which is so common it’s one of the essential ingredients for all life. Yes, producing lithum carbonate from seawater isn’t $4.50/kg cheap, or even $8/kg cheap. But even with first-generation technology, it’s only $22-$32/kg cheap — still easily cheap enough for lithium-ion batteries.
Almost all of the world’s 1,400,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilogram hydrosphere is ocean; multiplying by 0.170 ppm yields 238,000,000,000,000 kilograms of pure lithium. Since lithium only makes up about 19% of lithium carbonate (LiCO3), that’s about 1,270,000,000,000,000 kilograms of lithium carbonate, which is enough to make enough 10kWh packs to power 91,000,000,000,000 (91 trillion) Aptera-type vehicles or enough 50kWh packs to power 18,000,000,000,000 (18 trillion) Tesla-type vehicles.
So, while due diligence is always required for our natural resources, lithium is going nowhere, at least as far as li-ion batteries are concerned.
Photo credit: Martin Walker (released into the public domain)
Further reading: Lithium in Abundance by Bill Moore. EVWorld, April 15th, 2008.