The electric and hybrid vehicles industry continues to grow, and along with it concerns about whether there are enough resources to produce lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Establishing a reliable, diversified supply of lithium is a top priority for battery suppliers and vehicle manufacturers, who are expected to demand an estimated 100,000 tons of lithium carbonate by 2021.
Why so much talk about meeting the lithium demand?
Lithium is a poorly concentrated mineral that is difficult to obtain. About half of the world’s supply of lithium is produced by the evaporation of highly concentrated lithium brine, a relatively simple but time consuming method. Traditional hard-rock mining of lithium-bearing pegmatite and spodumene is a costly and time-intensive endeavor, but the lithium concentrate is considerably higher, making these deposits competitive with brine deposits.
Could recycling help?
According to an article on Industrial Minerals, Li-ion battery recycling is uneconomical because lithium accounts for a relatively small proportion of the cost of the battery. Also, the expense of separating out a small quantity of lithium from recycled batteries, while possible in some situations, is not justified by the value of lithium gained. Nonetheless, technologies to recycle lithium are being pursued.
New analysis suggests supply might meet demand
An article on azom.com presents analysis by researchers from MIT, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Gerbrand Ceder at the University of California at Berkeley suggesting that critical metal supplies won’t limit production of batteries, although temporary bottlenecks in cobalt and lithium supplies could temporarily slow down battery production. The analysis was published in Joule.
The researchers determined that of the five of the most crucial ingredients required to develop modern lithium-ion batteries—cobalt, lithium, manganese, nickel and carbon in the form of graphite—cobalt and lithium are the most significant materials whose supply chains could become limited. The team studied the diversity of the cobalt and lithium supply options in terms of production facilities, geographical distribution, and other variables.
According to the azom.com article, MIT Professor Elsa Olivetti said that with regard to lithium, production from brine can be increased to meet the demand much more quickly, within a period just six or eight months, as opposed to bringing in the latest underground mine into production. While disruptions might still be there in the lithium supply, these may not considerably affect battery production, she stated. Olivetti acknowledges the difficulties of cobalt sourced from Democratic Republic of the Congo, but says the major potential cause of delays in acquiring new supplies of cobalt comes from the actual extraction infrastructure, and not from its inherent geographic distribution. “The delay is in the ability to open new mines,” she said. “With any of these things, the material is out there, but the question is at what price.” In order to protect against potential disruptions in the cobalt supply, researchers, “are trying to move to cathode materials [for lithium-ion batteries] that are less cobalt-dependent,” stated Olivetti.
The research team concluded that there are no major barriers to meeting the growing demand over the next 15 years, but warns stakeholders to be aware of unexpected disruptions in the supply chains.
Explore more aspects of mining, exploration, processing, and analysis in the Cement, Coal, and Minerals Learning Center.