Lithium is one of the most mysterious elements in the universe to scientists, but it’s also a growing commodity for automotive companies like Nissan, Tesla, Volkswagen, and even NASA’s Mars rovers, who are using it in the game-changing re-chargeable batteries that fuel their all-electric automobiles.
Just in the last few years, astronomers have found ways to explain why our sun is relatively poor in lithium abundance and why our galaxy is unusually rich with it. At the same time, all-electric cars are growing in popularity (see the chart below), and as of the beginning of this year Tesla vehicles were the most popular in the US. Even global sales are continuing to rise:
While solving cosmic mysterious have little to do with our immediate demand for lithium-powered cars here on Earth, it’s important to recognise that without the Big Bang and stars, we wouldn’t have any lithium at all to help us curb harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
“As battery technology improves, lithium is expected to play a key role in efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that are responsible for global warming,” the US Geological Survey states in a report, which mentions that lithium’s “greatest potential for the most people” is in the form of these re-chargable batteries.
It’s only been within the last 115 years that humans have begun mining Earth’s lithium resources, and right now production is booming. The spike you see in 2000 is from the rise in demand for rechargeable lithium ion batteries:
Over the last five years, lithium’s use in batteries has substantially increased compared to other uses. Lithium is also a useful element in glass production because it lowers the melting temperature of glass, which mean manufacturers can use less energy to melt, shape, and mould their products.
There’s an estimated 39 million tons of lithium on Earth, but only about one-third of that is in a form that humans can mine in an economically-feasible way.
The vast majority of this mineable lithium — about 87% — can be found in salty, briny lakes. The remaining 13% is contained in hard rock mineral deposits.
As demand for lithium-ion batteries began to sky rocket after the turn of the century, mining companies looked to salt brine for more lithium. To extract lithium from brine requires a lengthy evaporation process that lasts between 8 months to three years, but it’s a simpler and costs about half as much than mining hard rock:
There are some concerns that as we continue to demand more lithium-based products, we’ll deplete the Earth of this resource. USGS estimates that if America’s demand for electric vehicles continues on its upward trend, then by 2050 we’ll need to mine about 54,000 tons of lithium a year — about one-third more than the total amount of lithium produced in 2014 for all lithium-based products — to meet demand for lithium in rechargeable batteries alone.
Nevertheless, others argue that this level of mining won’t threaten Earth’s total reserve, since deposits in countries including Chile, China, and Australia remain relatively high.
As of 2014, here’s how much lithium was still in mineable reserves in the world’s leading lithium manufacturers:
When it comes the future of electric vehicles, it’s not the lithium that’s going to pose a problem — the electricity these cars will use is going to tax electrical companies more than the lithium mining will take natural reserves.
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