Swapping addictions: trading oil for lithium

Although options other than lithium exist, some form of lithium chemistry is at the heart of every EV remotely close to production. Are we at risk?


The American love affair with the automobile has produced a dangerous dependency on gasoline, a societal addiction manifesting itself in pollution and the threat of being held hostage by foreign and often unfriendly dealers. Like any novice to AA or NA, we have admitted as a country that our lifestyle has become unmanageable. As a people, we seek change.

President Obama’s treatment is to make the United States the first nation to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.  His prescription includes consumer rebates, greater investments in R&D, and incentives for communities to finance electric vehicle infrastructure. But while the politicians, lobbyists, energy activists, and industry experts debate which therapy or course of rehabilitation we should undertake, we the consumers hold the ultimate trump card when it comes to how our energy and transportation futures will take shape. 

Addiction Transference

One treatment for addiction is called “addiction transference” when you trade one pattern of behavior for another, like giving methadone to heroin users or a nicotine patch to smokers.  Some of these approaches work well, providing a more gradual means to remove an addiction than simply going “cold turkey.”  When successful, the addicted can be weaned off of this alternative substance. At the very least, it is intended to redirect the addiction to a substance less harmful.  

In some cases, however, transference results in an illness more harmful than the original addiction. It is fear of such a solution-gone-wrong that has lead some EV detractors to take aim at the power source behind the budding technology: their reliance on lithium ion batteries. Critics maintain that replacing oil with lithium would only result in a new set of equally perilous problems. William Tahil of the French firm Meridian International Research proposes that much of the lithium supply will be siphoned off for use in laptops and other devices by the exploding consumer electronics market.mHis data indicates that there will only be enough lithium carbonate for use by 1.5 million electric vehicles worldwide in 2015. Today there are over 1 billion automobiles on the road. “Depletion rates would exceed current oil depletion rates and switch dependency from one diminishing resource to another,” wrote Tahil in a 2006 paper. “Concentration of supply would create new geopolitical tensions, not reduce them.”

A Look at Mega Trends

Although options other than lithium exist, some form of lithium chemistry is at the heart of every EV remotely close to production. Jeffrey P. Chamberlain, who heads up Argonne National laboratory’s Electrochemical Energy Storage Group, predicts that lithium batteries will be prevalent for at least the next decade or two.  

Lithium is a soft silver-white metal. It is atomic number 3 and the least dense solid element. One of two metals that can float on water.
Photo by Dennis S.K.

In accessing the viability of lithium and rare earth materials to support a burgeoning EV market, one needs to examine the megatrends. Megatrends, a term coined by futurist and author John Naisbitt, are the large-scale changes in circumstances shaping the marketplace. There are five such megatrends pacing EV development and impacting America’s overall energy security.  

Megatrend 1: Resource Demand

French automobile manufacturer Renault estimates that by 2020, the overall market share for EVs will comprise ten percent of all automobiles. They project that the number of all types of cars produced worldwide in 2020 will range from 62 to 107 million vehicles.  Assuming 7.5 million electric cars will be built in 2020, and factoring in 15kWh batteries containing 2 kgLi2CO₃/kWh, then the overall demand for the auto industry in 2020 would be 225,000 tons of carbonate lithium. This would be an only moderate increase from current levels, and one that could be easily handled by the dozens of companies currently moving into the lithium mining market. Barring a drastically unpredictable increase in EV demand or a catastrophic drop in lithium supply,  this should be a non-issue.

Megatrend 2: Resource Availability

Reports of lithium’s scarcity are greatly exaggerated. Research conducted by the Naval Postgraduate School, the Argonne National Laboratory and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) indicates that current producers will provide enough lithium to fuel the requirements for EVs for the next decade. Currently, the US has at least 2.5 million tons of lithium in reserve, and other countries have an additional 23 million tons. Outside of the US, the world’s lithium reserves are found in countries such as Australia, Argentina, Chile, China, Russia, Serbia and Zimbabwe. Recent deposits found in both Bolivia and Afghanistan contain easily more than half the world’s known supply.

Beneath the crust of the vast salt flats in South America lies a brine rich in lithium. An estimated 50% of the world’s current supply comes from Argentina & Chile.
Photo by
Kevin Jones.

In those areas currently being mined, producers are only at 60% of their production capacity for lithium, leaving plenty of room for expansion. Take into account the discoveries of new lithium deposits, the fact that the lithium part of batteries can be extracted and recycled, and the issue of resource availability seems to vanish into thin air.

EV batteries do require additional rare earth elements (REE) such as neodymium in the magnets used to make electric motors. Two other REEs – terbium and dysprosium – are added to neodymium to allow the electric motors to retain magnetism at high temperatures.  The name “rare earth elements” is somewhat of a misnomer, however, in that many of the REEs are quite abundant (Neodymium in particular is the second most abundant REE). The problem is that they typically are not concentrated in deposits making them easy to tap. 

Megatrend 3: Supply Chain Vulnerabilities  

Clearly the amount of lithium available for mining and production is plentiful, but factors other than volume determine availability. Whether lithium supplies can be held hostage by foreign powers is a fear eerily reminiscent of those currently associated with oil producers.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has been publicly critical of US policies and in 2010 Bolivia chose Iran, hardly a friend of the US, to assist in providing material, technical and training support for its lithium extraction. The chance of Afghanistan exploiting its vast, untapped resources seems highly unlikely. The country has no experience in mining on a large commercial scale, and lacks the necessary infrastructure. On top of that, regional instability, mainly the conflict with the Taliban, has outside mining companies reluctant to move into the beleaguered country. These are not the only sources of lithium, but with nations like Chile and China occupying the list of other suppliers, concerns are not far-fetched. 

When it comes to REEs, the US has some of the largest deposits, but since the 1990s it has imported most of its supplies from China. China was able to increase its production and drive down prices to the point that US firms found it too difficult to compete. They revealed their willingness to leverage their control of rare earth minerals as an economic weapon when they blocked shipment of REEs to Japan following the naval mishap in the East China Sea between the two countries.

Hope exists in the potential for renewed mining efforts in the US, Canada and Vietnam; nevertheless, an over dependence on any single supplier or group of potentially hostile foreign sources remains a severe supply chain vulnerability. It may prove to be a legitimate hurdle to the worldwide expansion of EVs as an alternative to fossil fuel-based transportation.

Megatrend 4: Research and Development

The Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-e) is funding a number of projects aimed at making improvements on the standard lithium-ion battery. 

One being developed by the firm PolyPlus, with ARPA-e support, is the lithium-water battery. The new technology encases the lithium in a special electrolyte membrane so it can be used as an elctromechanical couple with oxygen and water. The result is far greater energy density – 1,300 watt-hours per kilogram of electricity as compared to the roughly 400 watt-hours per kilogram achieved by standard lithium-ion batteries.  In other words, more power per kilogram of lithium.

There are also research efforts to eliminate the need for REEs used in lithium-ion batteries. Continental Corporation is developing an alternative to permanent-magnet motors using a brushed synchronous motor that requires no REEs.


A careful analysis of the megatrends reveals that America is not in danger of swapping its addiction to oil for one of lithium. Rare earth elements may pose a few difficulties, but there are measures underway to lessen the risk. By and large, electric vehicles have robust resource availability and a diversified supply chain to mitigate any real vulnerabilities for the foreseeable future. 

Steven M. Shaker is a former CIA case officer, Navy civilian analyst on future warfare, technology forecaster, futurist, and Co-Author of The WarRoom Guide to Competitive Intelligence.


Illustration by Arielle Katarina.

Issue: JAN/FEB 2012
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