Elon Musk debunks scare stories about a shortage of lithium

Li-ion Batteries 18650 - Pouch Cell (Charged EVs)

Elon Musk and JB Straubel covered a lot of ground in a nearly-three-hour performance at Tesla’s 2016 annual shareholder meeting. They recapped the history of the company, explained why Supercharging will not be free for Model 3 buyers, and discussed their plans to remake the auto production process. They also made some very interesting remarks about lithium, which some believe is becoming the new “white gold.”

In response to a question about whether there is enough lithium in the world to build all the nifty things that Tesla wants to build, Musk pointed out (as many others have) that lithium is pretty abundant here on Earth. Lithium exists in salt form “virtually everywhere.”

[Editor’s Note 6/17/16 4PM EST: While onstage, Musk stated that Lithium is the third most common element in the universe which is not accurate. In fact, Lithium is the 33rd most common element in Earth’s crust.]

Lithium Salt Pile (Phil Whitehouse - CC BY 2.0) 1
Salt piles in Southern Bolivia. Image by Phil Whitehouse (CC BY 2.0)

More to the point, however: Will Tesla be able to acquire enough of the stuff in the required form (lithium hydroxide) over the next few years at an affordable price? Musk yielded the floor to JB Straubel, who said, “We need to make sure that we have the extraction and processing capacity, but it’s not that much different than lining up other supply chain elements for the car – it just has a little bit longer lead time. Tesla has spent a lot of time working with all the different lithium companies all around the world to…make sure they are investing on the right timeline to have the capacity ready when we need it.”

“We’re also finding ways to reduce the cost,” Straubel continued. “Lithium is not a mature market. It’s not traded on the London metal exchange, it’s subject to a lot of speculation [but] this does not relate to the actual cost of production of lithium. That is relatively stable…so, once we can appropriately invest in the extraction, refining and processing, the price of lithium is quite low and quite stable.”

Furthermore, lithium-ion batteries don’t really require all that much lithium, and by the way, we’ve been calling them by the wrong name all these years.

“Although [they’re] called lithium-ion, the actual percentage of lithium in a lithium-ion cell is approximately 2%,” explains Musk. “Technically, our cells should be called nickel-graphite, because the primary constituent in the cell as a whole is nickel. On the anode side it’s graphite with silicon oxide. There’s a little bit of lithium in there, but it’s like the salt on the salad. It’s still important to avoid supply constraints [but] the main determinants of costs of the cell are the price of nickel in the form that we need it, and there’s a little bit of cobalt and some aluminum, and then the cost of synthetic graphite with the silicon-oxide coating.”



Source: Tesla

  • brian_gilbert

    There have been reports of the OLLI driverless POD in the last few days. The maker is planning to produce driverless cars using 3 D printing and is already using 3D printing for some parts. This suggests that production will be able to keep up with a any demand for driverless vehicles whereas previously that posed a limit on the speed of their adoption. UNtil about a year ago I only imagined that 3 D printing was usable for small parts but then I saw it was being used to produce the upper body for the pods used on the Suncheon Personal Rapid Transit Syatem.

    • Michael B

      And this relates to the above, how?

      • brian_gilbert

        There has been considerable doubt that Tesla can rwach a high enough production rate to meet demand. WIth the evidence of the OLLI that 3 D printing of large portions of the car is now possible there is little doubt that a high enough production rate can be achieved.

        Similarly for a country to go completely driverless will require a fleet of all types of driverless vehicles and again 3 D printing makes this feasible in a reasonable time. The advantage of going completely driverless is that the technology can already cope whereas it cannot yet cope mixed with human drivers.

  • Ozzie Perch

    Some people focus on a main ingredient instead of the key ingredient😂

  • Michael B

    “Although [they’re] called lithium-ion, the actual percentage of lithium in a lithium-ion cell is approximately 2%,” explains Musk.

    2% by mass, volume, cost? How many pounds of lithium per kWh of a Tesla battery (pack), and what is the current annual worldwide production of lithium in this ready-to-use state?

    • http://drgeorge.org/ ricegf

      A 250 mile range EV currently requires about 10 kg of lithium.

      We have about 37.5 million metric tons of known reserves that can be economically mined at current prices, and about 39.5 million metric tons of known resources that could be mined at higher prices or at the same price with more advanced mining technology. That’s about a 365 year supply of reserves at current consumption.

      If EVs become popular, and 100 Tesla-scale gigafactories are operating at full production, we’ll have a 17 year supply of known lithium reserves, and a 50 year supply of known resources. Since almost all of the lithium in a battery is recyclable, and the average lifespan of a car is 12 years, that may be enough long term. Self-driving shared vehicles (“autouber”), Interstate-embedded inductive power transfer, and improved mass transit technologies hold great potential to help as well.

      Scaling up production to meet EV demand, assuming it spikes over the next decade as some suspect, may be a serious challenge. Tesla is actively engaged in meeting this challenge.

      Bottom line is that we have a LOT of lithium, and demand will be commensurately high unless alternate and complementary technologies change EV battery designs. That part is very difficult to predict, as is whether supply will consistently keep up with demand.

      A good overview of the lithium challenge is greentechmedia dot com/articles/read/Is-There-Enough-Lithium-to-Maintain-the-Growth-of-the-Lithium-Ion-Battery-M.

      Hope this helps. Great question!

  • Perttu Lehtinen

    What the hell? Lithium is not the third-most common in the Universe.

    • Michael B

      He did say that, didn’t he? I wonder if it was just a “slip up”, but it’s not even in the top 10 metals on earth! I guess it is atomic number 3, which is a very different fact… not like Mr. Musk.

    • http://ChargedEVs.com/ Christian Ruoff


      Good point. Thanks for the note. I’ve updated the article to note Musk’s mistake. I’m sorry we missed that earlier.