Are we facing a lithium shortage?

With an explosion in the number of electric cars being manufactured and sold, rumours are spreading that global lithium supplies will not be big enough to cope with demand. But how true are the scare stories?

The electric car revolution

At the moment, the vast majority of car batteries are made using lithium. Lithium ion batteries are smaller and more efficient than alternatives. If lithium were to become scarce, it would eventually threaten the production of electric cars, and push up prices in the meantime.

The mass-production of electric vehicles has been halted for a long time by an insufficient supply of batteries. While there were not many batteries being made, it made the electric cars prohibitively expensive. However, this has changed recently with projects like Tesla’s Gigafactory, and other large factories. More and more people are investing in lithium mining companies, as their value continues to climb.

The falling price of electric cars has led to a huge rise in the number of EV drivers; ownership has now reached 2 million for the first time. Several of the biggest car manufacturers have very recently announced their move to all-electric and hybrids by 2019 – so batteries are soon to be in demand on a totally different scale.

Some of those opposed to the wider adoption of electric vehicles have been keen to spread speculation of a supposed lithium shortage. Opinion is split – even among experts – as to whether this is true. You could point to the fact that some of the doubters (such as petrol and diesel car manufacturers) have ulterior motives; but the fact stands that lithium is finite resource, and it will run out at some point.

Elon Musk has tried to allay fears by saying that lithium is only the ‘salt on the salad’ in Tesla‘s technology. Lithium makes up around 5% of the materials in some car batteries. However, although it is not needed in vast quantities, it is definitely needed!

Will we run out of lithium?

The current global reserve of lithium is hard to determine, but has been estimated at between 18-40 million tons. To put this into context, there’s around 63kg of lithium in a 70kWh Tesla Model S battery pack. With an estimated 1.2 billion cars in the world, even if everyone were to go electric (which is a long way off yet!), it would take years and years to run out of lithium. Whether or not we can extract enough quickly to meet sudden demand – whilst being mindful of the environmental consequences – might be the real issue. Lithium mining can be blamed for both the depletion and pollution of groundwater.

At the moment, lithium is mainly extracted in South America and Australia. However, new reserves are currently being explored, including at home in Cornwall. Research is underway to work out how to mine lithium deposits in the saline waters of its underground hot springs.

As well as the potential of finding new stores of lithium, research into new types of battery could eventually lower our reliance on the metal. Although moving at a slow pace, battery technology is developing all the time, with the race on to invent the most efficient, affordable battery. It’s possible that in future years, lithium ion could be on the scrapheap anyway!

In the meantime, there’s no real reason at the moment to think the take-up of electric cars will be stilted by a lithium shortage – at least, not for a long time.