Tue, 03 Feb 2009
Peak Lithium: Will Supply Fears Drive Alternative Batteries?

The Wall Street Journal

Saudis like to say that the stone age didn’t end for a lack of stones. But could a lack of lithium end the electric car age before it begins?

“Peak lithium” is back in focus, as the New York Times looks at Bolivia’s quest to cash in on the world’s biggest reserves of lithium, a key component in batteries. Simply put, global automakers and battery makers need to ensure a steady supply of lithium to power the expected electric-car revolution, but Bolivia’s populist government and its embrace of resource nationalism raises a lot of concerns about access to the country’s mineral wealth. TIME recently did a big takeout on Bolvia’s lithium, too.

Concerns about global supplies of lithium are a lot like the debate over peak oil. Some experts believe the huge increase in electric cars will actually strain the world’s lithium supplies in a few years; as with peak oil, “above-ground” factors like Bolivia’s politics may be just as critical as geology. Other experts figure lithium supplies are ample and exploding demand will just juice more lithium exploration, as happened with oil.

Either way, though, as hybrid and electric vehicles take a bigger share of the market, that threatens to push up lithium prices. That would make batteries, the costliest part of electric cars, even pricier, further threatening the economics of the electric-car revolution. (Ford on Tuesday announced its lithium-ion battery supplier.)A recent report by Lux Research called lithium availability the “ultimate limit” on electric cars’ future.

So what’s the alternative? Skip lithium altogether. Just as thin-film solar-power companies gained in appeal when global polysilicon supplies were tight, batteries that use materials other than lithium are gaining attention now. “Forward-thinking automakers will aggressively pursue alternative chemistries. As auto manufacturers come to terms with limited lithium supplies, they will increasingly consider alternative chemistries like zinc-air or other batteries made from more abundant elements,” Lux said in the report.

Toyota started researching a zinc-air battery, initially out of safety concerns (lithium-ion batteries sometimes explode). Germay’s RWE recently poured more research money into zinc-air batteries, too. Zinc-air and other metal-air batteries sidestep the lithium supply issue.

But if alternative batteries are still in the lab, that’s because they face a host of hurdles lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydrate batteries don’t share. Most importantly, zinc-air batteries aren’t rechargable and have a short lifespan—crucial negatives for the auto market. Some alternative batteries suffer from other shortcomings, too, including weight. That will leave lithium and existing nickel-metal batteries to share the global market in coming years, Lux figures.

Ironically, the NYT noted, Bolivia’s ability to blaze a trail for electric cars and cash in on its lithium horde may depend on the fate of old-fashioned oil: Bolivia is counting partly on petro-dollars from Venezuela to upgrade its lithium processing facilities, and the falling price of oil is squeezing Venezuela’s budget.