By Phil Covington
In his State Of The Union address on January 25th, President Obama set a goal of putting one million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road in America by 2015. In the same speech, he also spelled out his vision for the country to derive 80% of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. These targets bode well for the environmental credentials of EVs, because if the President's goals are met, their uptake will both directly and indirectly reduce fossil fuel consumption. Since big auto manufacturers are strongly backing EVs, they are now well poised to finally achieve critical mass. However, like anything that goes to scale, it has to be considered what resource constraints may impact such an emerging technology, and therefore to what extent such a technology is sustainable. This puts the spotlight on EV batteries.
The new crop of electric vehicles, like Nissan's Leaf and Ford's upcoming electric Focus, employ lithium-ion batteries to store electrical energy - same as the ones used in cell phones. Commercially, this type of battery is optimal due to its favorable energy density, meaning for any given battery size, a better driving range can be achieved. The key component of such batteries is lithium, a soft alkali metal, so scaling production of EVs using such batteries means a plentiful supply of this element will be necessary. So, is there enough lithium around to support the President's goals?
The answer appears to be yes. In January 2009, the US Geological Survey (USGS) produced a report on lithium as a part of its Mineral Commodity Summaries. Globally, the USGS estimates a reserve base of 11 million tons with, remarkably, approximately half of that sitting under the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia. This is compared with a reserve - the portion of the reserve base that can be economically extracted - of 4.1 million tons, nearly 75% of which is deposited in Chile. According to the TRU Group (Techno-economic Research Unit) an industrial consultancy, current global lithium demand is around 23,000 tons a year, which is projected to increase to around 54,000 tons by 2020. Lithium is used in all sorts of things including alloys, glass, ceramics and even pharmaceuticals. Use in batteries accounts for just 14% of the total today. Batteries will not become the dominant use for the metal until 2014, according to TRU Group. Beyond 2014 however, batteries will prompt a steep increase in demand, with electric vehicle batteries accounting for 38% of all lithium batteries produced by 2020. At this level, TRU Group determines that in excess of 4.5 million EVs per year can be produced. Roughly speaking, projected 2020 demand levels equate to a 75 year reserve supply, and that does not include accessing Bolivia's deposits which are subject to socio-political implications.
These statistics show that for the foreseeable future, lithium as a resource is not going to be a limiting factor to electric vehicle production. Just the opposite, the TRU Group projects that lithium production this decade could be almost double the demand. While this is bad news for the lithium producing industry, which will likely see depressed prices, it is perhaps good news with respect to the downward pressure on vehicle battery cost. Since batteries are a major factor in the price premium of electric vehicles, this could lead to more affordable EV's being available in years to come.
Arguably, the oversupply of lithium is not good news for lithium-ion battery recycling which, incidentally, can be done; the opportunity to do so being another environmental plus. However, Scientific American counters in an article regarding end-of-life battery disposal that since other valuable elements are present in these batteries, they will be unlikely to end up in landfill in any case. President Obama's EV goal, therefore, from a battery resource standpoint, appears to be a viable one. Now, 80% of electricity from clean energy by 2035? - that's for separate analysis.
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.