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Yesterday, as I was plugging in my solar panel to recharge my lithium battery pack,
I realized I was already part of the future. An electrical future. To make this future
a reality some major supply chain issues will have to be confronted and solutions
developed that are practical, scalable and sustainable. Perhaps answering the question
of where will all that lithium come from leads the list of critical questions.
Lithium, as an element in the natural world, is not especially rare, supposedly with
it occurring almost everywhere we look as a trace element. According to the physicists,
it was created in the milliseconds after the Big Bang that created our universe, along
with hydrogen and helium. It is the lightest of the alkaline metals, sitting above
sodium in the periodic table. It does not occur as a free element in nature and, in
its pure metallic state, reacts violently with water if immersed.
Biologically, lithium has no known physiological role. It is harmless in low concentrations,
but can be deadly at high concentrations.
I first knew lithium as an additive to the grease we used to keep my father’s combines
running. It is a great lubricant, being both waterproof and stable at high temperatures.
Next I heard of it being used as a treatment for bipolar disorder. Finally, I heard
mention of its use in batteries in the early 1990s when we began brandishing all those
cool flip phones. Today a major use of lithium is as an alloy, with aluminum and titanium,
to build lighter, stronger aircraft.
As recently as 2015 the United States was the leading supplier of lithium in the world,
but because the tonnage demanded was low, that didn’t amount to much. Today we supply
about one percent of the worldwide demand with Australia, Chile and China — in that
order — providing the rest. China, though third in terms of lithium tonnage, dominates
the lithium battery supply chain.
There are a half dozen types of lithium batteries, with lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt
and lithium-iron-phosphate batteries the most common. The average electrical vehicle
contains about 22 pounds of lithium. Current EV batteries are better than ever, oftentimes
outliving the design life (around 12 years) of the vehicle where they reside. Battery
technology is changing rapidly with problematic components (such as cobalt) being
replaced by more benign, more readily available constituents. As with most new technologies,
the cost of these batteries has dropped about 30 times from their first appearance
three decades ago.
Lithium is mined in two very different ways. Australia uses conventional hard-rock
mining, employing strip mining techniques while Chile obtains most of its lithium
by concentrating extremely saline brine solutions and then separating out the lithium
from this brew. The current lithium mining in Nevada is of the hard-rock type. Extensive
deposits of lithium-rich sites have been identified across the West and in North Carolina,
but environmental concerns and, because many of the sites are considered sacred by
native tribes, development of them will be problematic.
General Motors, which has announced plans to completely convert their fleet to all-electric
by 2035, is gearing up for both domestic lithium mining and battery production. It
has partnered with a firm that is planning on extracting lithium from California’s
Salton Sea beginning next year. Plans are also underway to commercialize lithium extraction
from subterranean saline water deposits in areas with hydrothermal activity.
At the moment, lithium batteries are cheaper when built from newly mined deposits
than from recycled batteries. But the European Union is close to requiring EV battery
recycling and, as the volume of batteries increases, the cost of recycled lithium
should be reduced.
As a sideline observer, it seems to me there is a lot of talk about our relative vulnerability
to a supply chain that is dominated by foreign sources, but so far little direct action.
As electrification of our life grows by leaps and bounds, our nation needs to begin
the process of pulling as many parts of this critical infrastructure home as possible.
For a good review of battery technology, check out David’s Castelvecchi’s August 2021
article in Nature entitled, “Electric cars and batteries: how will the world produce
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.