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Published on September 10th, 2009 | by Nick Chambers

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The World Has Enough Lithium For Electric Cars, It’s the Other Bits We’re Short On

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Editor’s Note, 9/11/2009: based on remarks in the comments section (some unnecessarily mean), it is clear that I made a mistake concerning the actual rarity of “rare-earth” materials. Although they are abundant in the earth’s crust, it is the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to find them in high enough concentrations to make mining them profitable that makes them a concern for being resource-limiting. I’ve edited my post to make that clear.

As an electric car nut, one of the most common quibbles I hear often revolves around the perception that if we do make a wholesale shift to EVs, we are just trading one foreign, limited-resource addiction (oil) for another (lithium).

But, as it turns out, there is no shortage of lithium. Our own Karen Pease has written thoughtfully about this in the past, and today there is news that a single lithium mine in Nevada could produce enough of the stuff on its own to make 650 million Nissan LEAFs or 1 billion Chevy Volts (my thanks to the commenter at the end of the post over at greencarcongress.com for doing those calculations). And that’s just one mine in Nevada — mines all over the world also contain vast quantities of lithium.

And we all went happily down the road to our EV future. Nope. Lithium-shmithium. We may not have a shortage of lithium, but we are likely bound towards a future with a shortage of EV materials that you’ve never heard of — things with odd names like dysprosium, lanthanum, neodymium, and terbium.

These rare earth metals, as they’re called, are a necessity to make the parts that make electric cars go — you know, such things as powerful magnets and battery additives. There’s a whole list of these types of rare earths that, although they are present in large quantities in the earth’s crust, they are exceedingly hard to find in high enough concentrations to make mining them profitable.

Unfortunately, the modern hybrids and electric cars we are demanding use lots of rare earths. In fact, the Toyota Prius is the single “biggest user of rare earths of any object in the world,” according to Jack Lifton, an independent commodities consultant and strategic metals expert. The Prius motor alone uses 2.2 pounds of neodymium and each Prius battery uses around 25 pounds of lanthanum.

Because of the global increase in demand, China, one of the largest suppliers of rare earths, has started limiting exports to keep the prices high (according to Reuters). The looming shortage has set off a veritable global hunt for new sources of rare earths. In California, a rare earth mine that had been closed is slated to be reopened in 2012.

In the short term the problem can be handled without issue, but unless we can find more sources of these rare earths, it seems that the shortage could lead to major problems later on if our demand outstrips the supply. Of course, battery and motor technology can and will change as time goes on, and perhaps we can find a solution that involves shifting away from using rare earths. But in the meantime, the whole thing has got me worried that we’re plunging headlong into another situation that we could have avoided.

Source: Reuters

Image Credit: Lanthanum in a test tube via Wikipedia. Used under GNU Free Documentation License.




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About the Author

Not your traditional car guy.



  • Paul

    This is getting repetitive:

    COMMODITY ANALYSTS/TRADERS PLACING STORIES ON NEWS WIRES CLAIMING RAW MATERIAL SHORTAGES TO GET FUTURES PRICES TO MOVE UPWARDS!!!!

    Note to Wall Street: Get a real job!

    We’ve seen this play in Oil already guys…. but you’re talking about durable, recyclable raw materials, not a consumable energy source that is burnt in ICEs at an efficiency of 15%.

    How to avoid rare earths in EV motors? Simple, it’s already being done, avoid BLDC motors and go with AC Induction motors (like Tesla have in their Roadster).

    AC Induction motors account for over 70% of motors used in industry and contain nothing more exotic than copper, steel and aluminium… all of which are routinely recycled.

  • Paul

    This is getting repetitive:

    COMMODITY ANALYSTS/TRADERS PLACING STORIES ON NEWS WIRES CLAIMING RAW MATERIAL SHORTAGES TO GET FUTURES PRICES TO MOVE UPWARDS!!!!

    Note to Wall Street: Get a real job!

    We’ve seen this play in Oil already guys…. but you’re talking about durable, recyclable raw materials, not a consumable energy source that is burnt in ICEs at an efficiency of 15%.

    How to avoid rare earths in EV motors? Simple, it’s already being done, avoid BLDC motors and go with AC Induction motors (like Tesla have in their Roadster).

    AC Induction motors account for over 70% of motors used in industry and contain nothing more exotic than copper, steel and aluminium… all of which are routinely recycled.

  • Paul

    This is getting repetitive:

    COMMODITY ANALYSTS/TRADERS PLACING STORIES ON NEWS WIRES CLAIMING RAW MATERIAL SHORTAGES TO GET FUTURES PRICES TO MOVE UPWARDS!!!!

    Note to Wall Street: Get a real job!

    We’ve seen this play in Oil already guys…. but you’re talking about durable, recyclable raw materials, not a consumable energy source that is burnt in ICEs at an efficiency of 15%.

    How to avoid rare earths in EV motors? Simple, it’s already being done, avoid BLDC motors and go with AC Induction motors (like Tesla have in their Roadster).

    AC Induction motors account for over 70% of motors used in industry and contain nothing more exotic than copper, steel and aluminium… all of which are routinely recycled.

  • evnow

    Because of the global increase in demand, China, one of the largest suppliers of rare earths, has started limiting exports to keep the prices high.

    That is speculation on your part.

    All poor parts of the world (in this case Mangolia) want to produce and export things after doing a lot of value add to natural resources. This is how the local economy can prosper using the natural resource.

    No different from countries wanting to export clothes rather than cotton – something colonial Briton detested.

  • evnow

    Because of the global increase in demand, China, one of the largest suppliers of rare earths, has started limiting exports to keep the prices high.

    That is speculation on your part.

    All poor parts of the world (in this case Mangolia) want to produce and export things after doing a lot of value add to natural resources. This is how the local economy can prosper using the natural resource.

    No different from countries wanting to export clothes rather than cotton – something colonial Briton detested.

  • http://riskinit.com Jacob

    Agreed, AC Induction motors are really the way to go materials wise. Also, editors should do their homework ‘rare earth’ metals aren’t really that rare at all.

    They were named that way because the first place they were found in a single mine in Sweden back in the day. From wikipedia “with the exception of the highly-unstable promethium, rare earth elements are found in relatively high concentrations in the earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element in the earth’s crust”.

    So no shortage either way…

  • http://riskinit.com Jacob

    Agreed, AC Induction motors are really the way to go materials wise. Also, editors should do their homework ‘rare earth’ metals aren’t really that rare at all.

    They were named that way because the first place they were found in a single mine in Sweden back in the day. From wikipedia “with the exception of the highly-unstable promethium, rare earth elements are found in relatively high concentrations in the earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element in the earth’s crust”.

    So no shortage either way…

  • http://WiseEarthPublishers.com Swift Arrow

    Rare Earth elements got that name because they don’t occur in common natural substances as much as other elements. That is to say, you’ll get more iron out of dirt than you will neodymium.

    But that DOESNT MEAN THAT THEY ARE RARE. These elements are available in abundance on our planet. They just aren’t one of the more common building blocks of our environment.

    And likening them to oil… please. Electric motors, magnets, everything can be recycled, and does not go up in smoke.

    I’m really starting to wonder about Go Media’s writers…

  • http://WiseEarthPublishers.com Swift Arrow

    Rare Earth elements got that name because they don’t occur in common natural substances as much as other elements. That is to say, you’ll get more iron out of dirt than you will neodymium.

    But that DOESNT MEAN THAT THEY ARE RARE. These elements are available in abundance on our planet. They just aren’t one of the more common building blocks of our environment.

    And likening them to oil… please. Electric motors, magnets, everything can be recycled, and does not go up in smoke.

    I’m really starting to wonder about Go Media’s writers…

  • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

    High prices cause entrepreneurs and engineers to find alternatives. There would not be a tree standing were it not for the invention of plywood and particle board.

  • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

    High prices cause entrepreneurs and engineers to find alternatives. There would not be a tree standing were it not for the invention of plywood and particle board.

  • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

    High prices cause entrepreneurs and engineers to find alternatives. There would not be a tree standing were it not for the invention of plywood and particle board.

  • russ

    The sky is falling!

    Get busy is the answer – or in the case of a green blogger you are allowed to panic and write silly stories.

  • russ

    The sky is falling!

    Get busy is the answer – or in the case of a green blogger you are allowed to panic and write silly stories.

  • russ

    The sky is falling!

    Get busy is the answer – or in the case of a green blogger you are allowed to panic and write silly stories.

  • jimmy jo

    Rare earths are common in the earths crust, but for a profitable mining operation they need to be in heavy concentration. There in lies the problem. Just as common as gold, uranium and any other metal for that fact. The point remains you need heavy concentration to be able to mine. There are in abundance everywhere just not enough of a concentration to mine.

  • jimmy jo

    Rare earths are common in the earths crust, but for a profitable mining operation they need to be in heavy concentration. There in lies the problem. Just as common as gold, uranium and any other metal for that fact. The point remains you need heavy concentration to be able to mine. There are in abundance everywhere just not enough of a concentration to mine.

  • jimmy jo

    Rare earths are common in the earths crust, but for a profitable mining operation they need to be in heavy concentration. There in lies the problem. Just as common as gold, uranium and any other metal for that fact. The point remains you need heavy concentration to be able to mine. There are in abundance everywhere just not enough of a concentration to mine.

  • http://www.virgance.com Clayton B. Cornell

    There is an excellent chapter in the book “Plug-in Electric Vehicles: What Role for Washington” (Edited by David Sandalow) on this very topic. Chapter 6 talks about the increased demand for rare materials and the potential implications for US Import Dependence. Recommended.

  • http://www.virgance.com Clayton B. Cornell

    There is an excellent chapter in the book “Plug-in Electric Vehicles: What Role for Washington” (Edited by David Sandalow) on this very topic. Chapter 6 talks about the increased demand for rare materials and the potential implications for US Import Dependence. Recommended.

  • curt Douglas

    Good article- I agree

    As an investor, how does one capitalize on this situation?

  • curt Douglas

    Good article- I agree

    As an investor, how does one capitalize on this situation?

  • Carbon Buildup

    A lot of these commentators make good points. Rare earth elements are probably abundant enough for most EV uses, but most of them are tied up in silicate rocks. This is true for most metals. Currently extractive metallurgical methods for recovering metals from silicates are cost prohibitive for most elements. So it’s not that they aren’t available, they’re just hard to extract. Sure there are exceptions. Remember the original’cold fusion’device? It used a palladium electrode. One researcher determined that it would take something like 400 billion dollars of palladium to enable ‘cold fusion’ to replace our electric generating capacity.

  • Carbon Buildup

    A lot of these commentators make good points. Rare earth elements are probably abundant enough for most EV uses, but most of them are tied up in silicate rocks. This is true for most metals. Currently extractive metallurgical methods for recovering metals from silicates are cost prohibitive for most elements. So it’s not that they aren’t available, they’re just hard to extract. Sure there are exceptions. Remember the original’cold fusion’device? It used a palladium electrode. One researcher determined that it would take something like 400 billion dollars of palladium to enable ‘cold fusion’ to replace our electric generating capacity.

  • Carbon Buildup

    A lot of these commentators make good points. Rare earth elements are probably abundant enough for most EV uses, but most of them are tied up in silicate rocks. This is true for most metals. Currently extractive metallurgical methods for recovering metals from silicates are cost prohibitive for most elements. So it’s not that they aren’t available, they’re just hard to extract. Sure there are exceptions. Remember the original’cold fusion’device? It used a palladium electrode. One researcher determined that it would take something like 400 billion dollars of palladium to enable ‘cold fusion’ to replace our electric generating capacity.

  • Carbon Buildup

    A lot of these commentators make good points. Rare earth elements are probably abundant enough for most EV uses, but most of them are tied up in silicate rocks. This is true for most metals. Currently extractive metallurgical methods for recovering metals from silicates are cost prohibitive for most elements. So it’s not that they aren’t available, they’re just hard to extract. Sure there are exceptions. Remember the original’cold fusion’device? It used a palladium electrode. One researcher determined that it would take something like 400 billion dollars of palladium to enable ‘cold fusion’ to replace our electric generating capacity.

  • daniel talosi

    I’ve heard the Prius battery is NMH, not yet Lith..the motor is probley a permanent magnet type, but like others mentioned US is probly going with AC Induction motors (like Tesla have in their Roadster).

    All new EV’s are going most likely with Lith Phosphate, cheaper & easer to manage. I love driving my EV, on gas.

  • daniel talosi

    I’ve heard the Prius battery is NMH, not yet Lith..the motor is probley a permanent magnet type, but like others mentioned US is probly going with AC Induction motors (like Tesla have in their Roadster).

    All new EV’s are going most likely with Lith Phosphate, cheaper & easer to manage. I love driving my EV, on gas.

  • http://barefoot-seo.blogspot.com/ Robert

    Hmmm… and what kind of an impact will mining these material have on the environment.

    I believe that in order to manufacture and maintain these vehicles they have to have a very long life to be beneficial to the environment. A pity, as most would be “recycled” in one way or another long before this date.

  • http://barefoot-seo.blogspot.com/ Robert

    Hmmm… and what kind of an impact will mining these material have on the environment.

    I believe that in order to manufacture and maintain these vehicles they have to have a very long life to be beneficial to the environment. A pity, as most would be “recycled” in one way or another long before this date.

  • http://barefoot-seo.blogspot.com/ Robert

    Hmmm… and what kind of an impact will mining these material have on the environment.

    I believe that in order to manufacture and maintain these vehicles they have to have a very long life to be beneficial to the environment. A pity, as most would be “recycled” in one way or another long before this date.

  • http://barefoot-seo.blogspot.com/ Robert

    Hmmm… and what kind of an impact will mining these material have on the environment.

    I believe that in order to manufacture and maintain these vehicles they have to have a very long life to be beneficial to the environment. A pity, as most would be “recycled” in one way or another long before this date.

  • David

    “Induction motors”… rare earth magnet motors are more efficent, which helps reduce battery weight and cost.

  • David

    “Induction motors”… rare earth magnet motors are more efficent, which helps reduce battery weight and cost.

  • David

    “Induction motors”… rare earth magnet motors are more efficent, which helps reduce battery weight and cost.

  • David

    “Induction motors”… rare earth magnet motors are more efficent, which helps reduce battery weight and cost.

  • http://www.hedgelender.co.uk/ HedgeLender

    This is why trade is so important to everyone

  • http://www.hedgelender.co.uk/ HedgeLender

    This is why trade is so important to everyone

  • http://www.hedgelender.co.uk/ HedgeLender

    This is why trade is so important to everyone

  • Norman Gerstein

    No Problem!

    This “rarity” will give us an incentive to recycle!

  • Norman Gerstein

    No Problem!

    This “rarity” will give us an incentive to recycle!

  • Dave Rohm

    Let’s not forget that the rare earth elements are also used in the “Metal Hydride” part of the NiMH battery. Hydrogen ions are shuttled back and forth from the lattice of a rare earth alloy to Nickel Oxy Hydroxide.

  • Dave Rohm

    Let’s not forget that the rare earth elements are also used in the “Metal Hydride” part of the NiMH battery. Hydrogen ions are shuttled back and forth from the lattice of a rare earth alloy to Nickel Oxy Hydroxide.

  • Dave Rohm

    Let’s not forget that the rare earth elements are also used in the “Metal Hydride” part of the NiMH battery. Hydrogen ions are shuttled back and forth from the lattice of a rare earth alloy to Nickel Oxy Hydroxide.

  • Dave Rohm

    Let’s not forget that the rare earth elements are also used in the “Metal Hydride” part of the NiMH battery. Hydrogen ions are shuttled back and forth from the lattice of a rare earth alloy to Nickel Oxy Hydroxide.

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