Lithium-ion, the power to go

  • Consumption pattern for lithium
  • Availability and recycling of lithium
  • Li-ion vs. lead-acid batteries


The world is moving towards green environment and acknowledge the carbon footprints. The use of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles (EVs) is gaining more acceptance with the passage of time. Lithium technology is well accepted as a storage device to power small electronics such as laptops and cell phones. With time, innovations were made to reduce combustible nature of these batteries. The lithium batteries when seen in unison with their life cycle are cheap, quick to charge and are suitable for use in extreme environments. In 2016, 50% of the lithium was used for energy storage in form of batteries, while the rest was used for glasses, ceramics, lubricants and chemical synthesis.

In the future, a high consumption of lithium will be largely dependent upon the adoption of electric hybrid cars and its prospects to recycle. Britain and France have already committed to solely sell electric and hybrid cars by 2040 as these nations will outlaw the sale of petrol and diesel cars. According to the IEA (International Energy Agency), the number of electric vehicles in operation surpassed a milestone of 2 million in 2016, this was an increase of 60% from 2015. This number is still low at 2.8% of the 72.3 million light motor vehicles globally. However, this is expected to reach 35% of the new motor vehicle sales by 2040. In 2017, 1.2 million EVs were registered, this is 57% higher from 2016. Furthermore, as per the report by the BIS Research, the market for electric vehicles is expected to grow at a CAGR of 30% in the next decade (grew at 98% since 2010). Thus, in order to match the growth, the demand for global lithium-ion is anticipated to reach 500 GWh by 2025 as compared to 103 GWh in 2017.

Now, the big question that arises is there enough lithium to sustain the future demand?

There are 53 million metric tonnes of lithium resources across the world, out of this 16 million metric tonnes are viable reserves. The mined lithium production (2017) was estimated to be 43,000 metric tonnes which is only 0.27% of the total reserves and 0.08% of all the resources. Thus, lithium is available in abundance, but more mineral needs to be mined in order to support the battery making demand. Consequently, the major lithium mining companies like Tianqi Lithium, Albemarle, MC and SQM are committed to add 20 more lithium production sites to support the existing 16. The reserve to production ratio is marginally over 100 years, this is in tandem with the expected growth in the consumption of lithium-ion by 2025. Though, the reserves are anticipated to mount with exploration of mineral in accordance with the demand, the recycling of lithium-ion batteries will also play a vital role in the supply of lithium.

There is a significant need to recycle batteries as the use of lithium-ion car batteries is increasing at a rapid pace. This is required to meet the anticipated demand, which can be met with reuse without dumping these batteries into landfill. Presently, the recycle rate for lithium is negligible as the primary production is inexpensive and the cost of extracting a small amount of lithium from a battery is unviable. Li-Cycle, the Canadian startup claimed that it would be more feasible and profitable to recycle all materials of EVs lithium-ion batteries rather than lithium leading to a recovery of cobalt, graphite and copper. The industry must learn from the recycling process of lead-acid batteries, 75% of all the lead is recycled and reused. The lead recycling began almost 20 years ago and was supported by evolving technologies and effective regulations. This can also be expected for lithium-ion batteries. Tesla is one of the leading companies which is working intensely towards manufacturing and enhancing recycle of lithium batteries. Additionally, China and Europe enforced rules wherein carmakers need to recycle batteries. Hence, considering the fact that more and more electric vehicles are developed and sold, recycling lithium batteries will not be a matter of choice in the future.

The most conventional way to develop a car battery is through lead, which is used to power engines in vehicles. However, lead causes neurological disorders and heart disease if one is exposed to the metal. In an occupational setting, the impact of the exposure varies as per the industrial standards of maintenance of hygiene at mines, smelters, refineries, etc. Lead’s use started declining as and when its detrimental effects in the form of poisoning were discovered. Its use is limited to lead-acid batteries and it is recycled. However, there has been a constant search for an alternative source of battery. The carbon emission on mining of lithium is much lower than lead and this revolutionised its acceptance. The below table provide a comparison and reasons on the preference of lithium-ion battery over electric vehicle battery.

The major advantage of using the lithium-ion battery is its lightweight as compared with the lead-acid battery as it weighs thrice more. Further, it is resilient and is less vulnerable to damage if discharged rapidly or when used in extreme climates. Lead-acid battery degrades above 25°C, while lithium-ion degrades over 45°C. The energy density for lithium-ion is 250 Wh/L, while it is merely 100 Wh/L for lead-acid battery. The lithium-ion battery has a high initial cost, however, its replacement cycle is of 8 years and has a minimal maintenance cost and thus, is more economical. Secondly, its cost has been decreasing and reached $209 per kWh (2017) from $1000 per kWh (2010) as shown in the below graph. This is further expected to reduce with more advancement in technology. In fact, Bloomberg expect the cost to reach $100 per kWh by 2025. 

The impact of a sudden spike in the demand for electric vehicle batteries also significantly affected lithium prices. The prices of lithium carbonate increased more than two-fold in the past 2 years (graph below). However, its impact did not reflect on the battery cost in the same proportion due to the presence of nickel and cobalt as other raw materials constituents. The price of cobalt, a major component of a battery was roughly $80,500/tonne as compared to $13,100 for lithium carbonate. Thus, fluctuations in cobalt prices are more likely to affect the battery prices.

In conclusion, it can be stated that lithium-ion is beyond doubt an economically viable option, but it will take a long time for it to replace lead-acid batteries. Hence, as long as the internally combustible fuel-based vehicles continue to operate, the demand for lead-acid batteries will exist. According to a school of thought, a resistance may be faced while switching from lead batteries to any other form due to its prolonged existence and suitability. However, the global development of gigafactories by car manufacturers to manufacture lithium-ion cells is a rebuttal to the above belief. The automotive manufacturers such as Tesla and Daimler, battery makers like Johnson Controls and electric services company, for instance; Energy Absolute have all unveiled their plans to enhance the production capacity of lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion has already made its mark and is expected to stay and revolutionise the market. 

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