When automakers first began to get serious about producing more electric vehicles, analysts raised the alarm about a looming global shortage of lithium. That could force a slowdown in EV production and put a damper on the EV revolution. Now it appears that the opposite has occurred. Lithium is on the way up, and it’s the automakers who have pick up the pace — for now, at least.
Good News For Electric Vehicle Stakeholders
The silvery-soft metal lithium is the key ingredient in rechargeable batteries of all sizes, including the heavy-duty kind used in electric vehicles. Where the lithium supply goes, so goes the supply of electric vehicles.
Until recently, much of the global lithium mining industry was concentrated in a few spots, giving rise to the potential for geopolitics to exacerbate supply issues.
That’s mostly evaporated, apparently. On July 28 Bloomberg took stock of the current situation and noted that six new lithium mines have opened in Australia.
That’s good news for electric vehicle stakeholders, though some lithium investors may be reaching for the Alka-Seltzer right now. The new growth in lithium mining is concurrent with a slowdown in the demand for electric vehicles in China.
A general slowdown in the global economy could also put the squeeze on demand for stationary energy storage systems and other products using lithium-ion batteries. Factors like those have already tilted the balance of supply and demand, contributing to a recent 30% global drop in the price of lithium.
According to Bloomberg, that’s likely not even the bottom. Australia holds the top spot globally for lithium production and is looking at an increase of 23%. Second-place Chile is also planning on a significant increase.
Lithium & The Cost Of Electric Vehicle Batteries
A continued drop in the cost of lithium will help keep the average cost of EV batteries going down, though BNEF (aka Bloomberg New Energy Finance) cautions against getting too excited about the impact on the overall cost of an electric vehicle. According to BNEF‘s most recent analysis, the price of metals influences battery costs by just a few percentage points.
Bloomberg also cautions that lithium prices will probably bounce back in a few years, when the electric vehicle market revs up to mainstream speed.
Taking The Pressure Off The Electric Vehicle Market
Even if prices do rise, the prospect is dimming for a disruptive price spike. An increase in supplies from new lithium mines is just one factor. Another is the growing mountain of used batteries for harvesting recycled lithium. Yet another is new technology for extracting lithium from salt brine.
New low cost energy storage materials may also help alleviate any future upward pressure on lithium prices. Some of the more unusual research includes re-purposing agricultural waste and other bio-based sources. Other unusual energy storage materials of interest include glass.
Alternative energy storage systems, like flow batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, are another element in play. So far this market is concentrated mainly in stationary uses, heavy duty vehicles, and specialty off-road vehicles like fork lifts. The use of alternative systems in these sectors could help relieve pressure on the supply of lithium for use in passenger cars, pickup trucks, and other light duty electric vehicles.
Come to think of it, last week CleanTechnica had a phone conversation with Charlie Freese, executive director of GM’s global fuel cell business, about a new fuel cell forklift demo project at the company’s Spring Hill GPS plant in Tennessee. Freese explained that GM selected fuel cells over both lithium-ion batteries and lead-acid batteries based on maintenance costs, use of floor space, and charging/fueling time among other factors.
Though the demo project deploys fossil sourced hydrogen for the fuel cells, Freese pointed out that hydrogen for the forklifts comes to the Spring Hill plant through a pipeline. Ideally, projects like the Spring Hill forklift demo will help grow the market for renewable hydrogen, and that’s what will come out of that pipe. Eventually.
Pipe dream? Maybe not! The cost of renewable hydrogen is dropping. Earlier this year the organization Carbon Brief crunched the numbers and concluded that renewable hydrogen can already compete on cost for small-scale purchasers in Texas.
More & Better Lithium-Ion Batteries
Yet another cost-dampening factor addresses one of our favorite topics here at CleanTechnica: dendrites.
Dendrites are feathery, nanoscale growths that develop in lithium-ion batteries. They eventually get large enough to interfere with charging speed, capacity, and lifecycle.
Solving the dendrite problem will lead to more efficient and longer-lived batteries, and it appears that help is on the way.
Researchers at Rice University, to cite just one example, is experimenting with a sugar-based solution for lithium-ion batteries.
Meanwhile, CleanTechnica has reached out to Mr. Freese for some additional insights about the Spring Hill project, so stay tuned for more on that.