Lithium is a key metal used in green energy storage technologies being developed to accelerate the transition to a post-carbon economy. This article will explore the growing demand for lithium and how electric vehicle expansion can address challenges in the transportation industry.
Image Credit: Cavan-Images/Shutterstock.com
The Transition to a Post-Carbon Economy
The modern world has arguably been built on fossil fuels. Historically, vast amounts of coal, natural gas, and oil reserves have been exploited to generate energy for domestic use, power heavy industry, manufacture industrial chemicals and products, and power global transportation.
However, several key issues faced today come with fossil fuel exploitation. Using petrochemicals for energy generation, heavy industry, and transportation is a crucial driver of climate change. Their exploitation causes geopolitical compromise and potential unrest.
Governments and NGOs have signed international pledges to significantly and rapidly reduce fossil fuel use and transition to a post-carbon economy to overcome these issues.
The Growing Demand for Lithium
Key to this transition is the rapid electrification of global energy grids, heavy industry, and the transportation sector. For this transition to be realized, efficient, reliable, and durable energy storage and generation technologies are needed in multiple sectors.
Renewable power systems, electric and ultra-low emissions vehicles, and consumer goods, like laptops and smartphones, require high-performance battery technologies with superior energy and power density to meet their demands.
Lithium-ion batteries have emerged as a forerunner among the technologies developed over the past few decades to meet the demands of a post-carbon global economy. These batteries have the highest energy capacity (120-200 Wh/kg.)
Lithium demand has increased exponentially in recent years due to its critical importance in manufacturing lithium-ion batteries. Much of the recent lithium raw materials demand growth has come from the electric vehicle industry.
A total of 23% of the total globally traded lithium was applied in lithium-ion batteries in 2010. By 2021, this share had increased to 74%. Due to the increased demand for lithium in electric vehicles, the average price of lithium carbonate increased from $5,000 per ton in 2010 to $17,000 per ton in 2021.
Australia’s Department of Industry forecasts estimated that total global lithium production in 2021 was 485,000 metric tons. This estimate grew to 615,000 metric tons in 2022, with 2023 figures predicted to rise to 821,000 metric tons.
Factors such as population growth and the transition to fully electrified energy grids, heavy industry, and transportation will increase demand for lithium to increase over the coming decades. Lithium, however, is a finite resource, so accurate predictions of lithium reserves and future demand are needed to ensure a smooth transition.
Lithium Mining: Perspectives
According to different estimates, there are 4-30 million tons of lithium reserves on Earth. One estimate in 2011 produced figures of 39 million tons (the highest estimate to date), but more recent estimates in 2022 produced a rounded figure of 22 million tons. These estimates rely on feasible assumptions of lithium recovery.
Lithium mining has seen exponential growth in recent years to satisfy the demands of the industry. While lithium is making a post-carbon, sustainable, green economy possible, lithium mining faces several challenges in terms of its environmental and societal impact.
Traditional lithium ore mining in countries such as China and Australia, where lithium is extracted from hard rock deposits, still uses fossil fuels to process lithium. This is clearly at odds with the stated environmental benefits of lithium-ion batteries. Mines also create land damage and environmental pollution.
The salt flats in the so-called lithium triangle of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia hold over 75% of the global lithium deposits. Once the brine has been pumped from beneath the salt flats, it is stored in vast evaporation pools, leaving behind lithium carbonate. This leads to vast water use, threatening local water supplies.
Technological advances in extraction methods have improved the efficiency of lithium mining operations. However, global lithium reserves are primarily controlled by a minority of nations. To address this, governments have announced that they will ramp up the implementation of lithium mining projects in their nations.
The Role of Electric Vehicles in Decarbonizing the Transport Industry
The electric vehicle industry and lithium are highly interdependent, which determines the degree of how successful the transition to a green transportation industry will be. Several companies have introduced electric vehicles in recent decades, with Tesla arguably the most recognizable manufacturer.
Electric vehicles are defined as vehicles with onboard batteries providing the necessary power, which is charged by an external electricity source. The future development of the electric vehicle industry and its role in decarbonizing transportation will depend on several factors.
International agreements and regulations play a crucial role, with the UK government planning to ban all new petrol and diesel vehicle sales by 2030.
Technological development, increasing lithium extraction efficiency, and circular economy strategies for recovering and reusing lithium will play a part.
Another factor is public perception and uptake of electric vehicles. Cost factors, benefit perception, awareness, and successful marketing campaigns by motor vehicle manufacturers will play a vital role in decarbonizing transportation and transitioning to green alternatives.
There is a positive correlation between electric vehicle stock and sales. Recent substantial rises in EV sales and stock have demonstrated a positive uptake of electric vehicles, which signals to the industry that electric vehicle development should be accelerated.
If the public quickly shifts from ICE vehicles to EVs, there will be a significant reduction in global CO2 emissions. Global transportation accounts for approximately 17% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing this figure to near zero will provide substantial environmental and societal benefits in the coming decades.
The Future of Lithium Demand and the EV Industry
There is an urgent need to address the impact of historical fossil fuel use and the transition to a post-carbon economy. Lithium-ion batteries play a vital role in electrifying multiple industrial sectors.
Lithium has fast become an essential metal in this industrial evolution, but its supply is vulnerable to economic and geopolitical factors. Furthermore, the mining of lithium is currently problematic.
Growth in lithium demand, particularly in the rapidly growing electric vehicle industry, presents new challenges that must be overcome to realize the promise of a post-carbon future.
References and Further Reading
Lindagato, P et al. (2023) Lithium Metal: The Key to Green Transportation, Applied Sciences. 13(1) 405 [online] mdpi.com. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/app13010405
Paul, S & Aich, R (2022) Factbox: World faces shortage of lithium for electric vehicle batteries [online] Reuters.com. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/technology/world-faces-shortage-lithium-electric-vehicle-batteries-2022-01-21/
Winrow, M (2021) Protecting fragile ecosystems from lithium mining [online] bbc.co.uk. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-54900418