The Down Side to Lithium Batteries - Autoline on Autoblog with John McElroy

Uh-oh. In the pell-mell race to develop lithium-ion batteries for plug-ins, EV's and hybrids, has any automaker taken a hard look at where all that lithium is going to come from? Guess what? Not only are global lithium supplies pretty tight, prices are about to skyrocket.
Today, the United States imports almost all of its lithium. We get most of it from Chile, then Argentina, and a little bit from Canada and Zimbabwe. The only producer in America is actually a German company, Metallgesellschaft, which has a mine in Nevada. Yet, even though we import most of our lithium, the United States is the world's largest processor of the material.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers. Follow the jump to continue reading this week's editorial.

But a lot of others want to get in on the game. China, no surprise, is emerging as a major player. It's buying all the lithium it can from Australia. China does have some lithium sources of its own, but they're mainly in Tibet. (Say! Do you think that's another reason why they're so hard-core about keeping Tibet within the People's Republic?)

Right now, all lithium producers around the world are running flat out, and plans are afoot to ramp up production dramatically. But while there's a lot of lithium in planet Earth, I'm told that it's kind of like oil shale: it's there, but it's not cheap or easy to get.

And there are other competing demands for using lithium, like in producing ceramic, glass and aluminum. And for air conditioning systems. It's even used by the pharmaceutical industry for treating depression. Now the auto industry wants to start using huge amounts of it.

"Demand will soon outstrip supply. We're going to see prices spike," Christian M. Lastoskie, Ph.D., of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, at the University of Michigan, tells me.

You'd think that such a valuable material would get recycled a lot, but that's not the case. Today, only 3% to 4% is recycled, and while that will probably increase, it won't increase a lot. Recycling lithium takes a lot of energy, so much so that recycled lithium costs five to six times more than getting it from virgin material.

That could prompt battery researchers to search out other alternatives for advanced batteries, but so far not much has happened. "Everyone searching for alternatives keeps coming back to lithium because it offers so many advantages in weight and storage capacity," says Lastoskie.

It sure looks like the auto industry is locking itself into a future that depends on a precious resource, which is in tight supply, and that has to be imported. I'm just asking folks, but in our rush to get better fuel economy are we about to replace one form of dependency for another?


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