There are a few key elements often discussed on the topic of energy. Most tend to think of the more exciting and dangerous ones. For these uranium, hydrogen, and plutonium may come to mind. Yet the most element that is rising in demand within the energy industry more than any other is lithium. Lithium is the key element in several important processes, most notably, in the creation of batteries.
This is becoming ever more important as electric cars become ever more prominent. Each electric car takes eight kilograms of lithium for the battery. This is without even mentioning the surging popularity of electric bikes and skateboards. Yet while this is a more prospective demand, the demand currently rests elsewhere. In 2015 Lithium demand was split almost evenly between batteries, ceramics/glasses, and greases/industrial use.
While in recent years this balance has shifted more and more in the favor of batteries (phones and other devices are to blame for that). This is nothing compared to the projected 95% demand for batteries compared to other uses in 2030. The demand is not only shifting in type, but also in scale. Looking at this same 2030 deadline, the projected demand is four million metric tons. This is monumentally different from the 2021 demand of 500,000 metric tons.
These new changing demands are also fairly intimidating. This is for one key reason, reusability. Lithium, in certain industries, is highly retrievable. For example lithium used in solvent extraction or in membrane separation can be almost completely recovered. Yet this is an ultimately niche use that is dwarfed by far less efficient uses such as batteries.
Batteries have one big problem. While they can actually have their lithium retrieved at a rate of up to 80%. This rate is not as meaningful once one realizes it’s the amount of lithium in a spent battery. Batteries that are having their lithium extracted are almost always used. This means even if lithium is extracted at high rates, it will be a relatively small amount.
Looking yet again to 2030 this results in a projected rate of 6% of lithium coming from recovered lithium. Lithium producers are consequently put in a bind. Today there are 22 million tons of lithium reserves across the globe. This is enough to produce 2.5 billion batteries. Yet the amount of batteries needed to supply the amount of electric cars needed is massive. While it seems there is enough lithium on the planet, the hard part is harvesting it all.
All of these factors together have made lithium a highly desired resource. In the energy economy today, and most importantly tomorrow, there are few resources more valuable. Time can only tell exactly what this means for the energy industry. Will batteries drop in importance as prices grow too high and supplies drop too low? Will alternatives to lithium be discovered? Will new and inventive ways to recover and save lithium be discovered?
Ultimately the current time period is one of uncertainty. Things are shifting rapidly and unpredictably. Yet there are a few things that can be said for sure. Lithium is becoming a more important, more valuable, and more scarce resource. Its use is shifting towards batteries and away from industrial use. And more importantly than anything, that all can and is changing rapidly. Now only time can tell exactly the role lithium will play.