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This is a part of the EV Innovation Intelligence series

Many e-mobility industry watchers would doubtless have come across new articles and TV shows centered around the theme of Lithium scarcity.

Estimations show that by 2025, 75% of the world lithium consumption will be for batteries. If Lithium forms the core part of the dominant battery technology and if this metal is available only in a few countries, and perhaps not in very large amounts, what are we letting ourselves in for?

A legitimate concern, but let’s see what the scenarios could be in this context?

Trends in the quantum of Li use

If we consider the amount of Li used today, it could be a small fraction of what it would be ten years from now. This indeed suggests that we could indeed face shortages. But we should remember that Li mining even from the existing and known sources of the metal are seeing an upward trend too,

Demand-supply projections

Demand supply projections up to 2030 indeed show a fairly comfortable demand-supply position for Lithium, with supply comfortably over demand. Global demand for lithium is expected to rise from an estimated 47,300 tonnes in 2020 to 117,400 tonnes in 2024, according to a GlobalData report. Lithium demand will be driven by a surge in EV sales, with annual production expected to surge from 3.4 million vehicles in 2020 to 12.7 million in 2024, and a corresponding surge in lithium-ion battery production, which is forecast to rise from 95.3 gigawatt-hours (GWh) in 2020 to 410.5 GWh over the same period.

Recycling of Li-ion batteries

Another avenues to ensure reliable supply of Li is through recycling of Li-ion batteries. Almost 100% of lead from lead acid batteries get recycled, and while Li-B recycling is in its early stages, it is quite possible to recycle back a very large proportion of Lithium.

  • Li-Cycle is a startup from Canada that uses a combination of mechanical size reduction and hydro-metallurgical resource recovery techniques designed for recycling lithium-ion batteries. The company provides the recycling technology for safely processing lithium-ion batteries that have minimal greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, it enables a sustainable end-of-life pathway for all lithium-ion batteries. The core benefit of their recycling technique is in the generation of a non-hazardous product that minimizes transportation liability and significantly lowers costs.
  • Finnish company AkkuSer uses curing treatment technology to deliver clean, safe, local, and sustainable lead recycling. Their recycling process enables safe treatment of reactive battery waste and a high recycling efficiency, with more than 50% of the materials contained in batteries being recovered. The batteries are then sorted into different fractions based on their metal and chemical content in order to enable maximum recovery of valuable battery metals.
  • NAWA Technologies, a French company, works on the Ultra Fast Carbon Battery using biological battery recycling to sort waste batteries based on their chemical composition. Their recycling process reduces the need for rare materials and sources carbon from biomass. After shredding and refining, their process results in a product called black mass, which contains electrolyte, zinc, manganese oxides, and other metals. Their recycling processes do not lead to volatile nano-objects and take into account the end-of-life constraints right from the design stage.
  • German Duesenfeld builds an electrolyte recovery method that combines mechanical and thermodynamic processes in order to save the energy required for recycling and also to recover more raw materials. They employ energy-efficient processes and are capable of recovering a substantial amount of material. This ensures they have a low carbon footprint after completing recycling operations.
  • Canadian startup Lithion Recycling develops a battery recycling solution that recovers 95% of all components from lithium-ion batteries and regenerates materials with high purity. Their technology significantly reduces pressure for extracting raw materials and minimizes the ecological liability of battery-operated electric vehicles and other machines.

Battery reuse

Many avenues are emerging for the reuse of Li-ion batteries for stationary purposes. While this may not directly affect the demand-supply for Li for EV batteries, to the extent that the reused batteries substitute for new Li-ion batteries for stationary uses, they still play a role. A handful of large-scale facilities recycle lithium batteries today using pyrometallurgical, or smelting, processes. These plants use high temperatures (~1500oC) to burn off impurities and recover cobalt, nickel, and copper.  Lithium and aluminum are generally lost in this process, bound in waste referred to as slag. Some lithium can be recovered from slag using secondary processes.  Today’s smelting facilities are expensive and energy-intensive, in part due to the need to treat toxic fluorine emissions, and have relatively low rates of material recovery.

Longer lifetime of batteries

There have been announcements of long-life batteries, including those of million-mile batteries that are expected to last 2-3 times as long as the current Li-ion batteries in terms of their number of charging cycles. Should these batteries use the same amount of Lithium as the current batteries but last twice as long, to that extent the demand for Lithium is lower.

Rise of non-Li-battery technologies

Should non-Li-ion battery technologies such as metal-air batteries (Zn air) or solid-state batteries become commercial, to that extent the need for Lithium will decrease?

  • Magnesium-ion batteries could serve as an alternative to lithium-ion batteries in electric cars and grid storage. Such batteries would use a cathode and an electrolyte similar to that of lithium-ion. However, the anode would be critically different. A typical Mg-ion battery would not make use of graphite, or any sort of intercalation anode, and would directly use magnesium metal. On paper, magnesium-ion offers a tremendous potential energy boost over lithium-ion, possibly as much as two-to-one. In theory, such capabilities would enable automakers to use batteries that are half the size, while offering the same power. However, such advancements face several technical challenges and are still far from the prototype stage.
  • Magnesium-ion batteries could serve as an alternative to lithium-ion batteries in electric cars and grid storage. Such batteries would use a cathode and an electrolyte similar to that of lithium-ion. However, the anode would be critically different. A typical Mg-ion battery would not make use of graphite, or any sort of intercalation anode, and would directly use magnesium metal. On paper, magnesium-ion offers a tremendous potential energy boost over lithium-ion—possibly as much as two-to-one. In theory, such capabilities would enable automakers to use batteries that are half the size, while offering the same power. However, such advancements face several technical challenges and are still far from the prototype stage.
  • Nickel-zinc batteries are cost-effective, safe, non-toxic, eco-friendly batteries that could compete with Li-ion batteries for energy storage. However, the main barrier for commercialization has been the low cycle life of nickel-zinc batteries. Chinese researchers from the Dalian University of Technology have developed a breakthrough technique to improve the performance of Ni-Zn batteries by solving the issue of Zn electrode dissolution, dendrite formation, and performance.
  • Sodium-Metal – Stanford researchers released a paper claiming that their sodium batteries could compete with lithium-ion batteries. The Stanford battery uses sodium, a cheaper, more abundant material than lithium, and is still in the development stage. The cathode of this battery is made up of sodium, and the anode is made from phosphorus, with the addition of a compound derived from rice bran or corn. According to researchers, this chemical combination yields efficiency rates comparable to that of lithium-ion batteries at a lower cost. The main advantage of the sodium battery lies in the fact that sodium is much more abundant than lithium, and it costs $150 per ton versus $15,000 for lithium.
  • Aluminum-ion and Lithium-ion batteries are very similar, except that the former has an aluminum anode. Aluminum-ion batteries provide increased safety and faster charging time at a lower cost than lithium-ion batteries; however, there are still issues with cyclability and life span. Stanford University is a leading developer of aluminum-ion batteries that incorporate a graphite cathode. The research holds the potential for making cheap, ultra-fast charging, and flexible batteries, with thousands of charge cycles, in addition to being a safe, non-flammable option with a high charge storage capacity.
  • Aluminum-air flow batteries for EVs outperform the existing lithium-ion batteries in terms of higher energy density, lower cost, longer cycle life, and higher safety. Aluminum-air flow batteries are primary cells, which means that they cannot be recharged via conventional means. In EVs, they produce electricity by replacing the aluminum plate and electrolyte. Considering the actual energy density of gasoline and aluminum of the same weight, aluminum is superior.

New sources of Lithium

Currently, there is a Li triangle in south America comprising three countries (Argentina, Bolivia and Chile) from which most Lithium is obtained. But Australia too has Lithium, and so does China. And there are efforts to discover Lithium in other countries too, including USA.

The inference?

Don’t hold your breath on the world running out of Lithium anytime soon. For all you know, by the time it runs out – if ever – it may not longer matter.

As the saying goes, the stone age did not come to an end because of the lack of stones!

And about the cobalt thing…

While we are on Lithium, the other bothersome metal used in Li-ion batteries is cobalt. Cobalt is extensively used in NMC and LCO chemistries, some of the most popular LiB batteries currently. The problem is, 60% of the world’s cobalt resources are located in the DRC region which is politically very unstable. But the cobalt problem would probably have been overcome in a few years if prominent battery makers have their way. Many battery manufacturers worldwide have tried to shift to better alternatives to NMC. As a result of such efforts, LFP(LiFePO4) has become the second most used Li-ion chemistry. Some experts feel that it is only a matter of time before LFP almost completely replaces NMC.

Related resources:

Commodities of the future: Predicting tomorrow’s disruptors

Battery makers face looming shortages of high-quality lithium

Is There Enough Lithium to Maintain the Growth of the Lithium-Ion Battery Market?


This is a part of the EV Innovation Intelligence series

Posts in the series

Tesla’s Valuation | EV’s in different countries | Purpose built EVs | Mainstream Fuel Cells | IT in Emobility | EVs versus ICEs | Advent of China in Emobility | Charging vs Swapping | Micromobility & EVs | Electric Aviation | Li-ion alternatives | Million Mile Battery | Battery Startups versus Giants | Sales & Financing Models | Ultrafast Charging a Norm | Heavy Electric Vehicles | Material Sciences in Emobility | Lithium Scarcity | Solar Power in EV Ecosystem | EV Manufacturing Paradigm | Innovations in Motors | EV Startups – a speciality Oil Companies’ Strategies | EV Adoption Paths | Covid-19 affect on the EV Industry |

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