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EV Batteries: The Big Unanswered Questions

With demand for lithium in full force, how is industry supposed to keep up with this seemingly impossible demand?

One of the most popular periodic elements in current news is known as lithium. A useful metal, lithium spends its life fighting with its one, outer electron. But what makes lithium so popular is that its reaction can be controlled and reversed, meaning this metal can act as a battery, dispensing energy when needed. 

It has not been long since lithium-ion batteries have been suitable for commercial consumption. However, within these last few decades, they have become the power source of choice. This is due to their ability to be both lightweight and safe compared to other alternatives. 

The latest tech boom has called for a dramatic increase in demand for electric vehicles- one of the most popular electric products to date that requires powerful batteries to operate. With this increase in demand, the pressure to provide lithium batteries for these vehicles was increased greatly. The UK for example announced in 2020 that the sale of petrol and diesel cars will be phased out by 2030, and all cars and vans would be zero-emission by 2035.  

To replace the UK's 31.5 million vehicles, Wendover Productions estimated that about 236,000 metric tonnes of lithium carbonate are needed. "To produce 236,000 metric tonnes of lithium carbonate, every lithium mine in the world would have to devote its output to this one use for nine months, and there are a whole lot more countries, a whole lot more lithium applications, and a whole lot more growth in the forecast," they said.

In addition to the UK, Iceland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Israel, Singapore, and South Korea have each committed to banning the sale of internal combustion passenger vehicles within the next decade. Wendover Productions added up the annual passenger vehicle sales numbers from 2019. "This data showed the absolute base-case demand for EVs a decade from now will be 9.5 million per year. Just to reach that, EV production would have to quintuple, but even the most conservative forecasters don’t dare tread anywhere close to a number as low as 9.5 million in 2032," they said.

Another component of this demand is the market price of lithium. Across 2021, Seaborne lithium prices saw a 400% rise in a mere twelve months. Lithium is also only one component in the battery equation-cobalt and nickel are crucial for the completion of the final product, which has also doubled in price over the last year. 

So how is industry supposed to meet this seemingly impossible demand?

In today’s climate, four countries dominate the industry. These include Argentina, Chile, Australia, and China, combined account for 92% of the globe’s production.

The metal is extracted from the ground at massive sites like the Greenbushes mine in Western Australia, which is the world’s largest hard-rock lithium mine. Once the raw material is extracted from the ground, it’s sent up to APozA Member, Tianqi Lithium's Kwinana Plant (responsible for almost half of the world’s production of the metal) where it is refined. Once this step is completed, the lithium hydroxide and other compounds are sold to battery manufacturers.

As outlined in this video on youtube, to meet projected EV demand levels, a large step in mining is needed. A potential solution to the lithium shortfall in recent media has been the use of geothermal energy or hot salty water/geothermal brine that is pumped to the surface and converted to a gas that turns a turbine to generate electricity from heat within the Earth. In addition to electricity production, these geothermal brines can yield lithium, brought up in the brine solution from thousands of feet underground and is seen to be environmentally sound. This method is not yet used for commercial purposes and is likely to stay this way. The issue with this method is the large amounts of water needed to be successful- creating a need for more money, rendering it environmentally and commercially unviable.

Developing new technologies is another pathway to meet projected demand, which holds the most promise. New, technological advancements play an important role in improving efficiency in processes. However, the time it takes to develop new technology can be long and the risk associated with scaling up to the commercial level can be significant. In Australia, we have a relatively small population and a long history of mining compared to other countries. Lithium deposits outside Australia may have more sensitive or higher populated locations which will delay the mining process and possibly cause conflict amongst surrounding communities. 

Outside of China, lithium mining and processing is relatively new, meaning a possible learning curve will delay the development of these new technologies further, before getting shorter and actually adding value.

It's no secret that there is a disconnect from a cathode and battery facility timeline, which is roughly a 24 month build time versus a lithium mine, which is 4 to 5 years and a lithium refinery of 3-5 years. Adding new technologies may just lengthen this process further. 

The hope for the future of lithium and co-products ultimately resides within the hands of industry leaders, governments, financiers and regulators. Supporting projects to mine ore, whilst supporting the development of new technologies may be the solution.