Where We’re Going We Won’t Even Need Lithium: A Neurotic Look at Our Energy Future

Editor’s Note: Gas 2.0 writer Karen Pease has written a response to this post entitled “Lithium Counterpoint: No Shortage For Electric Cars.”

So I stumbled across a time machine the other day and made my way into the future. I noticed something rather bizarre while I was riding my hover-board and wearing a pair of Air McFlys. First I couldn’t pump any more gas into my Delorean, so I asked the good people of the undisclosed future what they used for fuel. They used lithium-powered batteries, and their supply was running out…

For the record, I support all forms of alternative energy.  Anything but oil I say, it’s a relic of the Cold War as far as I’m concerned.  But what will be the future of energy?  Well, my time machine wasn’t completely accurate.  While I sincerely hope that we can establish an electric infrastructure, it appears that the market will decide our energy future (for more on the economics, read my last post).

In the scientific community, we keep running into this massive roadblock known commonly as thermodynamics.  It’s an intimidating word for an intimidating world-view.  Simply, thermodynamics states that we just reuse matter.  Matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be converted.  It appears that we will only be converting matter to energy for the next, oh I don’t know, maybe million years or so?  Sorry, my imagination couldn’t take me much further past 2015 (plus I had a broken flux-capacitor).

There is a huge philosophical implication here.  Won’t we eventually run out of everything we can possibly use for energy?  Following this logic, that would mean that we could only use ethanol from corn to power the world’s economy.  I believe in progress above all, and I sincerely hope that someone, somewhere is thinking about completely redesigning the engine.  According to William Tahil of the Meridian International Research Group, the Earth only has 35 million tons of Lithium available and we only know where to find 15 million tons of that total.  I know that seems like a lot, but remember what we used to think about oil?  Our great grandfathers probably shouldn’t have bathed in it for health reasons and our futures.

So maybe it is the Woody Allen inside of me talking, but isn’t it totally feasible that we run out of lithium someday just like we are running out of gasoline?  The age of cheap gasoline is over, and soon the age of relatively cheap gasoline will be a memory as well.  As a nation we hardly even blinked.  There was some yelling by that old guy running for president about removing a gas tax to save us from high prices, but I feel like people would rather just deal with the price hike than change lifestyles.

After a bit of research I found that the lithium supply more closely mirrors our silicon supply.  We have enough of it to theoretically meet our demands for now and the foreseeable future, its just that most of it is currently tied up.  Lithium is a highly reactive element and is very rarely found on its own, ready to make into a lithium battery (like silicon, which is readily found in sand, but needs to be separated to be useful).

I know this all seems a little far-fetched, but just think about what pulling lithium from our ecosystems would do to them.  All ecosystems are cyclic and each part is important to how it runs on its own.  We won’t fully understand how lithium fits into the world until we start pulling it out.  If everyone drove electric cars (and more than one, like a normal American family), imagine how much lithium would be needed!  On the other hand, not tapping into lithium for electric cars would be like not doing homework because the universe is expanding.  It just doesn’t make economic sense.  It’s best to ignore these very large and general fears because they are inevitable.  But there is one thing that we can do, especially a nation as rich as America.  We can strive for efficiency.

We should not worry so much about a new energy infrastructure as much as we should worry about being efficient with the supplies we do have.  Efficiency is key to never having an energy crisis again.  I got some great feedback on my last post stressing efficiency over all forms of alternate energy, and I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment.  We’re not talking just about transportation, but we need American industries to stop wasting gasoline and investing in more sustainable energy sources.  If we had been worrying all along, none of this would be an issue.

It’s a fast rule of economics that we never run out of anything because when we do we just find a new resource to fill the void.  Sorry to get neurotic again, but that is an awfully scary concept.  What happens when we get to the point where there is nothing else to switch to?  I guess worrying about that is a lot like worrying about the sun burning out.  But just because it is so far away, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

If you tend to worry a lot like me, follow these links:

Thanks to Matt Comi for the image, under Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Here is the rest of William Tahil’s research on the element Lithium.

Anthony Cefali

Anthony is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in biology as well as English. He became interested in the biofuel initiative after getting a job in the Raines Lab of Petroleum Alternatives at the university turning sugars into biofuels. He is the first to admit that he doesn't fully understand everything that he does or is trying to do, but enjoys doing his bit to help the environment. Anthony has very few plans for his future, but is interested in how natural systems work and how urban development changes these systems. On a good day, Anthony enjoys riding his bike really far away and reading Kurt Vonnegut books.