The transition to electric vehicles could lead to a lithium shortage unless the United States and other countries revamp their transportation systems and stop using private cars as the primary mode of transportation.
Simply converting the existing US fleet of cars to battery-powered electric vehicles, for example, would require three times as much lithium by 2050 as the world currently produces, according to new research from the University of California, Davis, and the Climate and Community Project.
An increase in lithium demand could also cause other problems, such as further environmental damage and worsening international tension over supplies of the metal, which is mined mostly outside the United States.
The report argues that broader changes to the transportation system, combined with intensive recycling of lithium batteries, could dramatically reduce demand for lithium. Some suggestions include increased use of public transport, denser urban development, and micromobility solutions such as electric bikes and scooters.
“Any one of those changes would be positive, they would all be transformational,” said Thea Riofrancos, a Providence College political scientist who worked on the report.
The world currently produces just over 100,000 tons of lithium per year. Under the base-case scenario the researchers established, the United States alone would require 306,000 tons a year by 2050. That assumes the transportation system stays the same and consumers buy vehicles with batteries roughly the same size as those used in sedans. electrical today.
In the worst case, where the system remains unchanged and battery size grows significantly, the United States could consume 483,000 tons of lithium per year by 2050. That would mean vehicles use as much lithium as the Ford F pickup. -150 Lightning o GM’s recently introduced electric Hummer, which weighs 9,000 pounds and has a battery that’s heavier than some cars (power wire12th of January).
At the other end of the spectrum, US lithium demand could drop by more than 90 percent from a worst-case scenario by 2050. Along with increased use of public transportation, micromobility, and a shift toward denser communities and options like walking and cycling, that scenario would require smaller car batteries and assumes that virtually all batteries are recycled at the end of their useful life.
The report comes with several warnings that could affect the result. Battery companies are looking for ways to extract more power from smaller batteries, for example, and mining operators around the world are trying to increase lithium production.
Lithium is critical to making batteries for electric vehicles, but it’s produced at only one mine in the United States: Silver Peak in Nevada, run by Albemarle Corp. (green cableOctober 14, 2022).
Australia, Chile, China and Argentina account for about 95 percent of global production, according to the report.
Globally, demand for lithium is expected to skyrocket to six times the current level, requiring 50 new mines, the International Energy Agency concluded in a report last year.
The Biden administration has recently taken steps to bolster the nation’s access to minerals like lithium, both at home and abroad.
Earlier this month, the Department of Energy offered a $700 million conditional loan guarantee for a facility that would process lithium from a mine in southwestern Nevada (green cableJanuary 13th).
But such projects can be precarious to approve and allow. The Nevada plant, which is still under environmental review, faces opposition for its proximity to the only known habitat of Tiehm’s buckwheat, a yellow-tinged wildflower recently listed as endangered by the Fish and Wildlife Service (green cableDecember 14, 2022).
The administration is also looking abroad to shore up battery mineral supply chains. The United States and its allies that make up the so-called Mineral Security Association are investigating 16 projects, from mining to processing and recycling, which will have to meet high humanitarian and environmental standards (green cableJanuary 23).
Reprinted from E&E News with permission of POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environmental professionals.