Global Lithium Reserves: More Than Abundant

Posted on: March 27th, 2009 by Ed Ring

In a briefing last week General Motors reaffirmed their commitment to the launch of the Chevy Volt by late 2010. The primary purpose of this briefing was to discuss the benefits of lithium battery technology as well as the reasons for their choice of LG Chem to produce the first generation of batteries for the Volt. Several points are worth noting:

GM is completing what will be the largest automotive battery lab in the U.S., and they intend to maintain in-house manufacturing capacity to integrate the battery cells into modules and complete battery systems. This gives GM more flexibility to choose cell suppliers for their 2nd and 3rd generation extended range electric vehicles, and lets them have complete control over how the battery interacts with the power management system of the vehicle. The fact GM is keeping 100% of the battery integration in-house illustrates the centrality of the battery in electric vehicles.

Another interesting point made was the reusability of the battery cells. Apparently these batteries, which are designed to last the life of the vehicle, can be reprocessed and recycled for use in a new battery in a new vehicle. One question not answered during this briefing was whether or not lithium resources globally are sufficient to supply these batteries for a global automotive fleet. So we did some digging:

According to a 2006 study by William Tahil of Meridian International Resource, there are 13.4 million tons of lithium extractable from various raw minerals, primarily lithium carbonate. According to R. Keith Evans, in a March 2008 study entitled “Lithium Abundance – World Lithium Reserves,” there are 28.4 million tons of lithium extractable from known reserves worldwide. In the Wikipedia entry on Lithium, 30.0 million tons of lithium are apparently currently available.

To determine how many vehicles these varying quantities of lithium reserves might supply with battery material, it is necessary to determine how many kilograms of lithium are required per kilowatt-hour of storage, as well as how many kilowatt-hours the average electric vehicle’s battery will require.

According to Tahil’s report, about .3 kg of lithium are required per kWh of battery storage. In an interesting 2009 battery discussion on Seeking Alpha, it is noted that about .26 kg of lithium are required per kWh or storage. In terms of kWh required per vehicle, it depends – the Volt, which is an extended range electric vehicle (containing an onboard gasoline powered generator to supply additional electricity to the motor), only requires a 16 kWh battery. The Tesla Roadster, by contrast, has no backup power system, and requires a 53 kWh battery. Given the Tesla Roadster is a lightweight, two seat vehicle, a larger EV without backup power might require an even larger battery, or live with shorter range. Complicating this further is the possibility of battery swapping stations, meaning that for every EV on the road, a supply of available charged batteries will also need to be present.

Nonetheless, interesting conclusions can be drawn using these various figures. Assume there are 20 million tons of lithium that can be extracted from known reserves, and assume, based on a mixture of extended range EVs requiring smaller batteries alongside EVs depending purely on larger batteries – i.e., assume an average battery storage per EV of 30 kilowatt-hours. Finally, assume .275 kilograms of lithium are required for each kilowatt-hour of storage. If you run these numbers, it appears we can build 2.42 billion EVs before we run out of known lithium reserves.

Not only is this a reassuring calculation for those of us who are enthusiastic about the electrification of the automobile, but it is a static projection, which like all static extrapolations, completely fails to take into account the future potential of humans to adapt and innovate. Should supplies of lithium falter, there are alternative battery chemistries already being developed. Alternatively, the extended range design with backup electricity generating capacity could become the dominant engineering solution for vehicles, meaning the average battery size could be much smaller.

Keith Evans Says:
March 29th, 2009 at 9:17 am

There is much misinformation printed about lithium generally and it was refreshing to read the Editor’s Commentary.
A major conference was held in Santiago, Chile, in January, attended by 150 participants from the lithium industry, battery experts, battery producers and companies with aspirations to become lithium producers.

Regarding resources, the only disagreement with the 30 million tonne estimate (equivalent to about 160 million tonnes of lithium carbonate – the predominant starter material for the lithium chemicals in Li-ion batteries) was from one company that estimated a significantly higher tonnage.

At the conference the universally quoted figure for battery requirements was 0.6 kg (of carbonate) per 1 kW/h with mild HEV’s, PHEV’s and EV’s requiring, respectively, 1.2 kg, 7.2 kg and 15 kg (for 2 kW/h, 12 kW/h and 25 kW/h batteries.

Using the figure the editor uses for the Chevy Volt (16 kW/h) the carbonate demand per vehicle will be 9 kilos (about 21.6 lbs). Each million tonnes of recovered Li will, therefore, be sufficient for about 550 million Volts.

Kent Beucherts comment is valid. Reserves and resources of 30 million tonnes is the current estimate. Now that a very large market seems a possibility exploration activity has increased. New sources will be discovered and existing sources will be increased with additional drilling.

I would also like to make two other points The cost of lithium in a battery is a tiny percentage of the battery’s total cost. If, somewhat higher cost sources have to be developed to meet demand the impact on battery costs will be minimal. Finally, there has been much press comment to the effect that the development of the Salar de Uyuni is vital to permit large scale lithium usage in batteries. This is not the case.
The resource there approximates to 18% of the world total.

Keith Evans Says:
April 1st, 2009 at 6:30 pm

In the National Research council report in the mid 1970’s the authors tabulated the reserves and resoures in the ground and then made well founded estimates of what could ultimately be recovered as lithium products allowing for mining and processing losses from pegmatites. Accordingly, the listed tonnages were reduced by 50% and 25% respectively for underground and open pit based mining operations.

In the case of the brines then known in the United States and Chile the total in situ tonnage was used as recovery data was either unknown or the information was regarded as company confidential.

Many discoveries have been made subsequently (and they are not restricted to brines and pegmatites) and recoveries probably vary greatly. In my update I followed the precedent established by the NRC report.

Based on our current knowledge I would roughly estimate that between 50% and 60% of the 30 million tonnes will be technically recoverable. With the rapid escalation in exploration activity as a result of the potentially large increase in demand the resource estimate will grow substantially.

Cyril R. Says:
April 4th, 2009 at 4:22 am

Let’s be conservative and use 4 million tons, with 4 kg lithium per EV, that is a billion EVs.

The pure lithium metal cost per EV is tiny compared to the retail sales price of such a vehicle. Using $10/kg that’s $40 per vehicle.

A doubling from this price level means +40$ per vehicle worth of lithium. Big deal. One tank of gasoline costs more than that!

Lael S Says:
April 14th, 2009 at 2:02 pm

Thought this might be of interest, another MIT discovery.
This would make li-ion batteries on par with ultra capacitors with charging in a matter of seconds. And the good news is that it should be available in only a couple years!

“March 16, 2009 Researchers have developed a new advanced Lithium Ion battery that will allow mobile phone and laptop computers to be fully charged in seconds. Electric car batteries may be charged in as little as five minutes, removing one of the main barriers to wider uptake of EVs.

“MIT researchers Byoungwoo Kang & Gerbrand Ceder have discovered a way to make a lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery charge and discharge about as fast as a supercapacitor.

“Speed of charging in typical lithium-ion cells is slowed by virtue of the fact that it takes time for the lithium ion to move off the cathode material. Various techniques have been tried to increase that speed including the nanoparticle doping strategy that A123 Systems uses.

“The scientists noted that lithium iron phosphate forms a lattice that creates small tunnels through which the lithium ions flow, but that although the cathode seemed ideal it still took some time for those ions to travel. The novel solution they devised was to create a lithium phosphate glassy surface to coat these tunnels. This glassy surface acts as a speedway that rapidly transports the lithium ions on and off the cathode.

“This new ability to charge and discharge lithium-ion batteries within seconds blurs the distinction between batteries and ultracapacitors. Besides being able to charge one’s cellphone in seconds, this will have a major impact on electric cars. If electric grid power was available, an electric car with a 15kWh battery could be charged in five minutes. This would require the delivery of 180 kw of energy in that time frame.

“Two companies have already licensed the technology one of which includes A123 Systems. Because it involves a new approach to manufacturing lithium-ion battery materials, rather than a new material, it could be ready within two to three years.

Furthermore, “companies such as Tesla Motors are already recycling lithium ion batteries”.


Lithium-ion Batteries that are 100 times smaller
and charge 20 times faster!
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One Comment

  1. Has the issue of pollution from lithium been discussed? I understand it is toxic and does not break down. An answer is necessary before I can make an informed decision regarding using lithium batteries.

    First, let’s make one thing perfectly clear to anyone in doubt, this comment writer, “jackie”[yeah, right.], does not care one bit about batteries – just like Osama Bin Laden couldn’t care less about the environment. Has anyone ever refused to buy a car because it had a lead-acid battery? Has anyone refused to buy a new cell phone because it had a lithium battery?! This is a scam.

    The truth:
    Today we are faced with, struggling with, an environmental and economic disaster in and beyond the Gulf of Mexico so serious we don’t even yet know all the ramifications. “Presently, people drive around sitting on top of canisters filled with highly flammable, explosive, gasoline…”! We have got to get off our corporate coerced oil dependency!

    Second, let’s straighten this person out about the toxic batteries they-we are all using right now! (Have they never heard of lead poisoning?!) “Lead is a major constituent of the lead-acid battery used extensively in car batteries.”

    Lead-acid Batteries
    * Individuals who become poisoned by lead can experience symptoms including kidney damage, miscarriages, disruption of nervous systems, declined fertility of men through sperm damage, brain damage, diminished learning abilities of children, behavioural disruptions of children, such as aggression, impulsive behavior and hyperactivity. Lead can enter a foetus through the placenta of the mother. Because of this it can cause serious damage to the nervous system and the brains of unborn children.
    * Lead acid typically consists of 40 percent sulfuric acid, a corrosive that can burn skin;
    * The improper disposal of lead-acid batteries can contaminate soil and water. The toxic metal is not able to dissolve in water or biodegrade, dissipate, decay, or burn, making it an extremely harmful hazard.

    Given the potential health, safety and environmental impact of lead-acid batteries, many states require vehicle maintenance facilities to recycle them. Community planning and right-to-know laws may also kick in.

    The lie exposed: “Lithium Ion batteries are classified by the federal government as non-hazardous waste and are safe for disposal in the normal municipal waste stream”
    Furthermore: “companies such as Tesla Motors are already recycling lithium ion batteries”.
    Translation: oil’s fear mongering lies about Lithium expose the magnitude of their lies in other areas such as peak oil and global warming, just to name a few.


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