Could We Run Out Of Lithium?
lithium is the atomic element at the center of the battery revolution that we've witnessed over the last decade with its demand doubling from 2009 to 2019 and now with electric vehicles and solar storage rapidly rising in popularity we have to wonder could we run out of lithium energy usage propels our industry our transportation and our economy human society has perpetuated a quasi-exponential growth in energy usage since the industrial revolution and arguably even before these trends are fascinating in their own right implying that our distant descendants will one day need to harness the energy of entire stars or even galaxies to meet their needs known as kardashev civilizations as we've discussed on this channel before in the nearer term though our growing thirst for energy might not affect our star or our galaxy but it is affecting our planet as someone who studies other planets and looks for life elsewhere in the universe projecting our own future out has always fascinated me as a way of providing some kind of guidance as to what else might be out there so full disclosure i am an astrophysicist not an economist but i think with some simple calculations here we can gain some important insights about lithium supply when it comes to energy we live in a time of transition the combustion of fossil fuels has historically been the engine of our modern industrial society powering everything from our homes to our factories our cars to our airplanes but more than a century of feverish burning has altered the chemical composition of our planetary atmosphere in particular increasing the concentration of the heat trapping gas carbon dioxide by 50 percent as we increasingly feel the climatic consequences of these changes there is a growing sense of urgency to transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives lithium-ion batteries have emerged as one of the keystone technologies facilitating this transition invented by the anglo-american chemist whittingham in the 1970s early versions were toxic non-rechargeable and often flammable but decades of research and refinement has led to a far safer and fully rechargeable device capable of thousands of charging cycles lithium-ion batteries have already had an enormous impact on the world of portable electronics being found inside your smartphone your tablet your gaming devices but all of that may simply be a warmer pack for what is to come because of electric cars like this one and solar storage systems our thirst for lithium may be about to elevate to a whole new level there's three basic reasons why lithium in particular reigns supreme when it comes to batteries first it has one more electron than it really wants defining the so-called alkali metals on the periodic table such metals tried to shed this extra electron to leave it with a full valence shell which is their most stable electron configuration this tendency to easily shed electrons makes lithium well suited for batteries but the second advantage is that it's the lightest of the alkali metals crucial for portable devices with just three protons and four neutrons typically and third lithium is a fairly abundant and easily extractable metal making up 20 parts per million of the lithosphere and naturally found in concentrated pockets across the planet and i'd be remiss as an astronomer if i didn't mention that about one fifth of the lithium on our planet was likely forged in the big bang itself 13.8 billion years ago i mean just think about that next time you're holding a piece of lithium in your hand in brief lithium-ion batteries start with a positive cathode and a negative anode separated by electrolyte when discharging the lithium atoms in the anode become ionized and released to the cathode thus generating a flow of free electrons to equalize the charge charging is really just the opposite where the lithium ions are released by the cathode and received by the anode the choice of materials for the electrolyte the anode the cathode all affect the properties of the battery and that's where a lot of research is currently focused several different battery chemistries are in use and under development such as lithium nickel manganese cobalt or nmc and lithium-ion phosphate lfp but the considerable advantages of lithium as the lightest alkali ion make it difficult to replace and even more advanced battery concepts like solid-state batteries similarly depend on lithium in fact i believe even more so now whilst there is an increasing demand for many of the metals that go into these batteries for most of them one can find alternatives without huge trade-offs in performance whereas for lithium it really is the linchpin to this entire battery revolution there are two main ways that lithium is currently extracted the first is through hard rock mining of spodu mean ore for which the largest deposits are found in australia and hence why oz currently produces almost half of the world's lithium supply after mining the spodumine is processed into high grade lithium hydroxide which can then be used in manufacturing the other source is from lithium brine accumulations of saline ground water that are enriched and dissolved lithium brines in closed basins within arid regions are particularly easy to exploit and south america has enjoyed a booming industry in this regard the brine is pumped to the surface and then left to evaporate in a series of ponds under sunlight concentrating the brine over 18 to 24 months until it can be chemically extracted as lithium carbonate the lithium carbonate can then be converted to lithium hydroxide if needed through an additional treatment besides from these sources it's also worth mentioning that lithium clays and even sea water contain plenty of lithium out there whilst that lithium is extractable in principle the problem is that it's currently much more expensive to use these and thus they haven't been a meaningful source thus far okay so we know why we need it and we know how to get it so now we are ready to tackle the question at the heart of this video really there are two ways of asking that question though the first is to ask will run out of lithium in a sort of an absolute sense and the earth will have no usable lithium at some point in the future but another and i think a more brilliant way of asking that question is will production capacity meet demand in the coming years so to get started let's have a look at what's been happening over the last few decades one of the best and open access resources for tracking this comes from the united states geological survey i'll link down below where you can find that data for yourself looking back to 1994 just three years after the first commercially available lithium-ion battery was sold global lithium production was 6100 metric tons now that's the weight as measured in pure lithium but industry standards typically convert this weight into lithium carbonate equivalent or lce for short because lithium carbonate is heavier though we have to make a conversion here which is about 5.3 thus giving us 32 500 tons lc of production in 1994 now i highlight this because if you look into this for yourselves you'll often come across wildly different numbers but often that is because they are crossing different lithium equivalents rather than a genuine inconsistency okay so working in the lce industry standard this is how lithium production has evolved in the years since there's certainly ups and downs here like the 2009 dip coming after the great recession and supply downturns during covet but the overall trend is pretty clear and not that surprising indeed lithium production has increased by a factor of 16 over 27 years now this is supply and not demand but of course because of market forces the two are generally tracking fairly close together during this time for example supply really takes off in response to demand just after 2016 as the first truly mass-produced ev that tesla model 3 enters the marketplace looking at this trend it's clearly not well described by a linear slope or even a quadratic curve so is there a simple mathematical fit technology development often starts with an initial phase of exponential growth so let's try that here so here's a little mathematical trick exponentials look like linear straight lines if we just change our y-axis here to a logarithmic scale and doing so we indeed see something that looks more linear and fitting our exponential function through it it does a great job so switching back to the linear scaling the exponential behavior is clearer now and corresponds to lithium supply doubling every 7.9 years i mean it's really not a surprise that supply has been growing like this as mining operations are generally scaled to match demand enjoy greater investments and benefit from ever improving mining extraction technologies looking ahead extrapolation is always somewhat hazardous but if we assume that this same rate of improvement can be sustained for the next six years then we would predict lithium production to increase something like this reaching 816 000 metric tons lce but the problem with this is that that's almost certainly not going to be enough because the demand for batteries in our homes in our cars it's not part of some slow three decade continuous growth curve but rather it is a paradigm technological shift that is occurring under our feet so let's look at that chart again but now also plot the projected demand for lithium in red i'm showing here projections from three different sources just to cover our best and yet all of them show that lithium demand will hugely outstrip even the exponential growth curve that production has historically enjoyed so of course lithium miners are fully aware of these projections and know that even the exponential growth of the past is not going to be enough look in a market economy whenever demand rises supply tries to catch up and that's why we are already seeing massive investments in lithium mining to try and anticipate this increased demand combining projected supplies that are operational probable and even possible one can see that projected supply should be on track to match demand out to 2028. again i'm showing you here three lines for three different sources for these projections and that's interesting because it means that lithium supply should ramp up even faster than the exponential that we've seen in the past and hints at just how transitional the phase we're entering really is now so far we've only gone out to 2028 let's now go out to 2040. there are few projections out this far but the basic picture is one of continued growth in lithium demand that then quickly outstrips production on the face of it this is quite a disturbing picture implying a huge shortage in lithium in the 2030s however let's remember these projections only account for planned lithium mining projects it is quite feasible that additional and as yet unplanned lithium-ion projects will emerge in the coming years to pick up this shortfall but regardless the real point here is that meeting this enormous demand will be a huge economical logistical and industrial challenge ahead of us in the same way that we might question whether the supply projections could be an underestimate it's also worth asking the same about the demand projections the electric vehicle ev market is certainly the most important factor here because in these projections they're expected to dominate global lithium demand past 2025 and comprise 70 percent of that demand by 2030. for some extra context here a
kilowatt hour ev battery has the same energy storage as about 2 000 consumer laptops or 10 000 smartphones so the question then is could ev demand grow even faster than that which is being projected here to explore this let's again take three projections from various outlets for the growth of the ev market where the y-axis here is what fraction of new car sales that year would be some kind of ev either fully electric or hybrid projecting out to 2035 the average of these models is 19 percent and out to 2040 that's 31 less than a third now remember that's not 31 of all cars on the road being electric by then that is 31 of new car sales being electric in almost two decades from now now perhaps if you're like me and you own an eevee or thinking buying an ev that number might seem a little bit surprising because it implies a rather slow transition to evs government here plays an important role in the speed of said transition because of course they can accelerate it by offering tax credits incentives and even most powerfully issuing mandates so let's look at mandates in particular because they provide a well-defined lower limit for the ev market over time in california the air resources board is presiding over a proposal for 35 percent of vehicles to be zero emission by 2026 and a complete ban on new cars with internal combustion engines by 2035. federally the government stance is not quite so aggressive as this with the biden administration stating that they have a goal of 50 of new car sales being electric by 2030. indeed the us seems to be taking that goal seriously with the recently passed inflation reduction act representing a 369 billion commitment to that end heading over to the uk in november last year the government announced their plan for a ban on internal combustion engine cars by 2030 including hybrids soon after in 2035.
in the eu a proposal to ban all internal combustion engine cars by 2035 received backing from parliament in june this year and may soon become law last july also saw the announcement of the same date being targeted by the japanese government but here mandates eco-friendly cars to allow for hybrids and accommodate the japanese car manufacturers and the big one china which of course is the largest car market on the earth has a similar eco-friendly mandate by 2035. and of course i have to mention the case of norway shout out to any of our norwegian viewers out there because in norway last year two-thirds of all car sales were electric put them well on track for their 100 gold by 2025. now even ignoring the case of norway we can see a kind of quasi-convergence towards 2035 as where we'd expect an eevee dominated market so putting this all together along with the relative size of global car sales in each region it looks like the plans of many governments are much more ambitious than the ev projections we saw earlier where recall only a third of cars were electric by 2040. in fact these five regions alone account for more than 70 of current global car sales if we combine these numbers and assume that their global share of car sales will be approximately unchanged then we find that evs should make up at least 25 of new car sales by 2030 and 61 by 2035. and remember that's assuming
that the other 30 of the world doesn't buy a single ev and no one goes above their mandated minimum putting these lower limits back onto our earlier chart of projected sales we can see a pretty clear and stark tension now of course mandates can change laws pass and fail but i think it's clear the current stated goals of the major car selling regions of the world imply a much higher demand for evs and hence lithium than current projections capture now i think this mismatch is probably because of the recent flurry of announcements of mandates that we've been seeing but it raises the question what does all of this mean for lithium demand going forward converting from ev demand to lithium demand is complicated it depends on projections about global car sales the battery size of each car and the lithium needed per battery now i could go ahead and make guesses for those numbers but they won't necessarily be the same as those used in the various projections so that's not really fair instead i think it's fairer to simply scale those original projections up to account for the increased ev demand let's call this the enhanced demand scenario okay so recall that by 2030 70 percent of lithium demand is going into evs in the current projections it's trending up but let's just assume that by 2035 it's still at 70 percent just to lowball our numbers we can also see that the total lithium demand in 2035 is projected to be 3.7 million metric tons lce unfortunately we only have one projection going out this far but reassuringly the projections were consistent at earlier dates breaking apart this number it corresponds to 2.6 million metric tons lc going to evs and the remaining 1.1 to everything else and that 2.6 number corresponds to an ev market share of 29 in the current projections there's actually considerable disagreement in the projections here so i'm using the largest of the three such that i have to scale things the least so again i'm trying to keep our estimate as low ball as possible so if we need to scale that 29 number to match the government mandates which we estimated to be a minimum 61 percent by this point that's an increase of a factor of 2.1 more than
double okay so let's now scale our 2.6 million metric tons lce of lithium by a factor of 2.1 and then finally add it back on to the other 1.1 millimetric tons for non-ev products that means that we would need to revise the 2035 lithium demand projection up from 3.7 million metric terms to 6.6 million metric tons
a roughly 80 increase even though we tried pretty hard to lowball this number pulling this back onto our lithium production chart shows that it's a pretty dramatic shift fitting our previous projected demand curves with another exponential which again does a great job we can now attempt to scale this demand curve for the enhanced ev demand scenario which will give us something like this now i'm going to be careful not to project into 2040 here since in this enhanced demand scenario 2035 should represent a switch over to a flatter demand as the ev market saturates giving us perhaps something more like an s like curve after that point nevertheless when we compare this chart with the projected production rates from before then clearly even nominal demand projections will greatly outstrip plan supplies but the enhanced demand scenario triggered by all of these mandates would greatly exacerbate our dilemma in fact subtracting the two we can see a significant lithium deficit emerge in the late 2020s reaching a staggering 4.6 million metric tons lce by 2035. whichever demand model we use we can see that lithium mining faces a monumental challenge to ramp up a historically unprecedented rates so one way of answering our question is to say yes we likely will run out of lithium at least in a day-to-day sense unless we find some additional and as yet unplanned supplies of it the eevee revolution would then face a real risk of production falling behind demand leading to spiraling lithium prices undermining any financial instruments that were designed to incentivize their widespread adoption but the good news is that we have time we can see this mountain coming and our final discussion might actually provide a possible answer at this point we're pretty well equipped to answer the other way of asking the primary question in this video will we run out of lithium in an absolute sense according to the 2022 report of the u.s geological survey known global reserves of lithium are 89 million metric tons that's pure lithium weight not lce however if you look at the numbers from the previous reports which i'm showing you here then you can see that that number has been constantly going up over the years not because the earth is somehow making more lithium but just because we keep finding more of it and so in the future too we should expect this reserve number to keep increasing nevertheless for simplicity and for the sake of this video let's just round that up to a hundred million metric tons but with the understanding that that's probably an underestimate now using that number we can use the eb market to get a sense as to when those reserves would run out since we know that evs are projected to dominate lithium demand in the future rather than trying to calculate a date when the lithium would run out let's instead ask how many ebs that reserve could be used to manufacture to do that we first need to note the typical amount of lithium in each ev and to do that we first need to choose a typical battery size in each ev let's use this card the hyundai ioniq 5 as our test case no this video isn't sponsored by hyundai or anything but this is the car i drive it is a fantastic car and it has a fairly typical battery pack of just under 80 kilowatt hours so let's round that up to 100 kilowatt hours just to account for improved battery densities and range that we might expect in future generations so next we need to know how much lithium each kilowatt hour of battery requires this varies somewhat depending on the design and chemistry but it's around 160 grams per kilowatt hour for current cars with a theoretical minimum of 70 grams for nca type batteries and 80 grams for lfps check out the linked article down below for that calculation so accordingly let's take 100 grams per kilowatt hour as a rounded and optimistic value and 100 kilowatt hours as our typical battery size giving us a total weight of 10 kilograms of lithium per ev now with 100 million metric tons in reserve which is 100 billion kilograms that means that we can manufacture about 10 billion evs it's at this point where most videos like this would generally stop and say okay fine we won't run out of lithium then because there's only 1.4 billion cars on the road so we have seven times more lithium than we need even if every car becomes an ev but there's a few reasons why we might want to be just a little bit more careful than that first global car ownership has been steadily rising as other nations approach u.s living standards which by
the way has almost one car per person so it's not inconceivable that we could approach several billion cars on the road on the other hand it has been argued that this trend might reverse as self-driving cars and ride-sharing increase so i'm reluctant to increase this number to several billion but the second and more pressing concern is lithium recycling virtually none of the lithium in your phone and your laptop in your ev comes from a recyclable source right now and if we don't figure out a way to efficiently recycle these batteries then we're essentially just throwing away this precious metal every time we scrap these devices since lithium-ion ev batteries are generally rated at about 10 years before needing replacement it would be seven times that or 70 years to effectively deplete the entirety of the identified global lithium reserves once evs dominate the car market so in the long run as in the next century lithium recycling is clearly essential however if we really did refuse to recycle lithium batteries there are other sources of lithium out there i mean there's 180 billion metric tons of the stuff in the oceans dwarfing the supply from mines or brine pools but at least for now that lithium is far more expensive to extract so battery recycling could play a vital role in not exhausting our economically viable reserves of lithium on a time scale of say a century or so but even on a shorter time together time scale of decades recycling could be key remember that demand currently looks set to outstrip supply at least that's if we define supply in terms of plant production projects this leads to a lithium deficit of 4.6 million metric tons by 2035 in the enhanced ev demand scenario so that means that we need some new and as yet unplanned supply of lithium to keep the eevee revolution alive but the good news is that even in the more challenging enhanced ev demand scenario it turns out that recycling is theoretically capable of largely meeting that demand let's look at our deficit curve again with the enhanced demand scenario that's deficit per year let's now treat it cumulatively so that each year now shows the total amount of missing lithium in the marketplace thus far like accruing a debt with that we can see that by 2035 when the market should start to saturate and flatten out we're missing about 17 million metric tons lce of lithium which is a lot now let's try to see if recycling could pick up this shortfall so what is the cumulative amount of lithium out there in manufactured goods well to ballpark this we can just take the supply curve shown here and add up the total amount produced thus far we can't go infinitely far back into the past though so let's only consider cumulative supply since 2012 since lithium-ion batteries have a 10-year lifetime and those 2012 batteries are reaching the end of their lives right now we also can't really count lithium produced but still in active use since that's not yet recyclable so for that let's again assume a 10 year lifetime which means that the actual amount of recyclable supply of lithium at a given date is the total supply of lithium from the year 2012 up to said date minus 10 years finally you can never recycle 100 of course so let's assume an 80 efficiency here some emerging companies are actually claiming they can reach 95 percent efficiency but we also have to account for collecting up all of these batteries in the first place with these numbers we can see that recycled lithium could in principle fully make up the lithium shortfall out to 2035 after which remember we expect the market to level out in this scenario this is of course an approximate model here but this at least gives us a sense as to what's possible now even if you think i'm being a little bit optimistic with some of the numbers here the real point is that recycling is not destined to be some small minor contribution but rather i could become a vital player in the supply chain of lithium in the coming decades and so recycling then solves two problems for us it solves a long term problem of eventually exhausting the plant supply of usable lithium but also the short-term problem facing in the coming years of the day-to-day supply chain issues alternatively we could start extracting lithium from clays to make up for the shortfall as tesla is currently considering a process though that has thus far not been economically competitive with traditional mining however i would say the fact that we have a sustainable source to meet demand is something we should seriously consider before going down that rabbit hole recycling of lithium-ion batteries is still in its infancy previous approaches has actually just smelted the battery down to try and recover the metals which is lossy and expensive but recently we're seeing new companies pop up with innovative techniques that promise higher efficiencies and lower costs for example the american battery technology company essentially runs battery assembly lines in reverse disassembling batteries on an automated factory line with some chemical separation techniques at the end another company lithium cycle instead puts the batteries through a kind of gigantic shredding machine and then uses hydrometology to separate out the lithium and the other metals and these companies are attracting a lot of investment for example lithium cycle obtained 300 million dollars of investment in the last year alone so to finally come to our conclusion it is possible for us to run out of lithium in the near term that could take the form of a supply deficit that stores the ev revolution as well as everything else that depends on lithium-ion batteries like energy storage and portable electronics in the longer term a society that depends on huge amounts of lithium but refuses to reuse any would eventually exhaust their reserves for both recycling could play a vital role efficient lithium-ion battery recycling could satiate that lithium deficit that we discussed earlier although the techniques being used are still in their infancy and require some further work to get up to scalability more realistically recycling can be supplemented by tapping new sources like lithium clays during the most explosive part of the demand curve expected in 2030s in any case clearly our plans for a carbon zero economy are going to be quite dependent upon solving this problem and we need to start planning and investing in solutions for this now look tax rebates on evs are great but it's also time to think about the sourcing of the lithium-2 you know it's sometimes said that our ability to foresee events years even decades into the future is what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom we know this challenge is coming and we still have time to adapt and adjust personally i'm optimistic and excited about the prospects as lithium-ion revolution promises facilitating widespread solar microgeneration zero-emission vehicles and an overall and urgently needed reduction in our co2 emissions as is often true a revolution is rarely a spontaneous act it requires meticulous and careful planning often years in the making and that's why it's important to stay thoughtful stay curious thank you so much for watching everybody and thanks for sticking to the end if you like what you see be sure to do all the youtube things like share subscribe you know the story and if you really want to help us out you can click the link up above where you become a donor to my research team the cool world's lab just like our latest supporter so a big thank you to johnson thank you for your support so until next time see you around the galaxy [Music]