Friday, January 23, 2009

Possible Lithium Shortage to Impede Future Electric Car Production?

Lithium - an integral component for lithium-ion batteries used in electrical cars, not to mention cell phones and laptop computers - could face shortages if, in the future, demand for electric cars outstrips supply (link). The article goes:

"Mitsubishi, which plans to release its own electric car soon, estimates that the demand for lithium will outstrip supply in less than 10 years unless new sources are found."

"The U.S. Geological Survey’s mineral commodity specialist on lithium, Brian Jaskula, offers a more conservative estimate, forecasting that demand will begin to drive lithium prices up in the next 10 to 15 years. But the signs are clear: Lithium, which now costs less than a buck per kilogram, will not stay cheap for long."

The article does go further into depth and provides some optimism. As is often the case, technology's "invisible hand" often comes to the rescue, pulling us up in our hour of need. This will likely be the case with batteries:
This doesn't sound too good at first, but if the past is any indication of the future, we can probably expect that as demand increases, prices will rise, making both recycling of existing lithium-ion batteries more profitable and exploration for new sources more viable (techniques to extract lithium from sea water in a cost-effective way, for example).

If things unfold like with silicon and solar panels, a constrained supply will lead to innovation; no forms of batteries that don't need lithium (or need much less of it), in the same way that thin film solar that doesn't need highly purified silicon was born.
Another thing to consider is that it would be very surprising if 20-30 years form now the
energy storage that we use is anything like what it is today. Technological innovation builds on technological innovation, and by most measures the pace of change is acceleration. We've seen a lot of movement in the past 30 years, and we'll probably see even more in the next 30. Maybe by then hydrogen will be a viable storage medium, maybe hypercapacitors designed on the nanoscale will totally replace chemical batteries. Maybe ferrous batteries will replace
lithium-ion... Who knows?
Getting a little off topic, the Chinese recently had a breakthrough with nickel catalyst fuel cells.
- Brewskie

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