GM's Volt & Global Lithium Reserves

In a briefing last week General Motors reaffirmed their commitment to the launch of the Chevy Volt by late 2010. The primary purpose of this briefing was to discuss the benefits of lithium battery technology as well as the reasons for their choice of LG Chem to produce the first generation of batteries for the Volt. Several points are worth noting:

GM is completing what will be the largest automotive battery lab in the U.S., and they intend to maintain in-house manufacturing capacity to integrate the battery cells into modules and complete battery systems. This gives GM more flexibility to choose cell suppliers for their 2nd and 3rd generation extended range electric vehicles, and lets them have complete control over how the battery interacts with the power management system of the vehicle. The fact GM is keeping 100% of the battery integration in-house illustrates the centrality of the battery in electric vehicles.

Another interesting point made was the reusability of the battery cells. Apparently these batteries, which are designed to last the life of the vehicle, can be reprocessed and recycled for use in a new battery in a new vehicle. One question not answered during this briefing was whether or not lithium resources globally are sufficient to supply these batteries for a global automotive fleet. So we did some digging:

According to a 2006 study by William Tahil of Meridian International Resource entitled “The Trouble With Lithium,” there are 13.4 million tons of lithium extractable from various raw minerals, primarily lithium carbonate. According to R. Keith Evans, in a March 2008 study entitled “Lithium Abundance – World Lithium Reserves,” there are 28.4 million tons of lithium extractable from known reserves worldwide. In the Wikipedia entry on Lithium, 30.0 million tons of lithium are apparently currently available.
post resumes below image

Lithium ingots with a thin layer of black oxide tarnish
(Photo: Wikipedia)

To determine how many vehicles these varying quantities of lithium reserves might supply with battery material, it is necessary to determine how many kilograms of lithium are required per kilowatt-hour of storage, as well as how many kilowatt-hours the average electric vehicle’s battery will require.

According to Tahil’s report, about .3 kg of lithium are required per kWh of battery storage. In an interesting 2009 battery discussion on Seeking Alpha, it is noted that about .26 kg of lithium are required per kWh or storage. In terms of kWh required per vehicle, it depends – the Volt, which is an extended range electric vehicle (containing an onboard gasoline powered generator to supply additional electricity to the motor), only requires a 16 kWh battery. The Tesla Roadster, by contrast, has no backup power system, and requires a 53 kWh battery. Given the Tesla Roadster is a lightweight, two seat vehicle, a larger EV without backup power might require an even larger battery, or live with shorter range. Complicating this further is the possibility of battery swapping stations, meaning that for every EV on the road, a supply of available charged batteries will also need to be present.

Nonetheless, interesting conclusions can be drawn using these various figures. Assume there are 20 million tons of lithium that can be extracted from known reserves, and assume, based on a mixture of extended range EVs requiring smaller batteries alongside EVs depending purely on larger batteries – i.e., assume an average battery storage per EV of 30 kilowatt-hours. Finally, assume .275 kilograms of lithium are required for each kilowatt-hour of storage. If you run these numbers, it appears we can build 2.42 billion EVs before we run out of known lithium reserves.

Not only is this a reassuring calculation for those of us who are enthusiastic about the electrification of the automobile, but it is a static projection, which like all static extrapolations, completely fails to take into account the future potential of humans to adapt and innovate. Should supplies of lithium falter, there are alternative battery chemistries already being developed. Alternatively, the extended range design with backup electricity generating capacity could become the dominant engineering solution for vehicles, meaning the average battery size could be much smaller. There should never be enduring shortages of any fundamental human need, energy, water, food, shelter, or transportation, because our capacity to invent new solutions always exceeds the rate at which we deplete resources necessary for existing solutions.

14 Responses to “GM's Volt & Global Lithium Reserves”
  1. kent beuchert says:

    There is also the silly claim that we know exactly how much lithium is present in the earth. Just look at the enormous errors that were made in the past when estimates of known reserves of everything from oil to uranium were used for arguments. Those estimates so completely underestimated resource levels that every argument they were based on was totally invalid. Remember the claim that oil prduction would peak in 1980? NOBODY really knows how much lithium exists out there, but you can be certain that it MUST be larger than the known reserves.
    That’s simple logic.

    Editor’s reply: We are in complete agreement, Kent. Even if someday there are politically contrived shortages of lithium, we will find new ways and new places to extract and refine lithium, we will find new substitutes for lithium, and new substitutes for batteries. As we concluded in the post “There should never be enduring shortages of any fundamental human need, energy, water, food, shelter, or transportation, because our capacity to invent new solutions always exceeds the rate at which we deplete resources necessary for existing solutions.”

  2. Roger Brown says:

    “There should never be enduring shortages of any fundamental human need, energy, water, food, shelter, or transportation, because our capacity to invent new solutions always exceeds the rate at which we deplete resources necessary for existing solutions.”

    Do you have any basis for this claim other than <i?”It’s comforting to believe it?” The fact that something has been done for a long time is not proof that it can be done forever. By this logic we should be able to accommodate an increasing global human population into the indefinite future since we have successfully done so for centuries. The Roman Empire should still exist since centuries of success ‘proved’ that they were capable of adapting to changing circumstances. And so forth.

    Your reference to possible future ‘politically contrived’ shortages of lithium is very strange. It seems to imply a belief that all resource shortages must be politically contrived and that anyone who suggests that increasing human material wealth might have physical limits must be politically motivated. I don’t deny that power mad people exist across the political spectrum, but I resent the implication that simply because I believe that the goal of continuous per capita income growth and the ecological health of the planet are incompatible that I must be one of them.

  3. Keith Evans says:

    There is much misinformation printed about lithium generally and it was refreshing to read the Editor’s Commentary.
    A major conference was held in Santiago, Chile, in January, attended by 150 participants from the lithium industry, battery experts, battery producers and companies with aspirations to become lithium producers.

    Regarding resources, the only disagreement with the 30 million tonne estimate (equivalent to about 160 million tonnes of lithium carbonate – the predominant starter material for the lithium chemicals in Li-ion batteries) was from one company that estimated a significantly higher tonnage.

    At the conference the universally quoted figure for battery requirements was 0.6 kg (of carbonate) per 1 kW/h with mild HEV’s, PHEV’s and EV’s requiring, respectively, 1.2 kg, 7.2 kg and 15 kg (for 2 kW/h, 12 kW/h and 25 kW/h batteries.

    Using the figure the editor uses for the Chevy Volt (16 kW/h) the carbonate demand per vehicle will be 9 kilos (about 21.6 lbs). Each million tonnes of recovered Li will, therefore, be sufficient for about 550 million Volts.

    Kent Beucherts comment is valid. Reserves and resources of 30 million tonnes is the current estimate. Now that a very large market seems a possibility exploration activity has increased. New sources will be discovered and existing sources will be increased with additional drilling.

    I would also like to make two other points The cost of lithium in a battery is a tiny percentage of the battery’s total cost. If, somewhat higher cost sources have to be developed to meet demand the impact on battery costs will be minimal. Finally, there has been much press comment to the effect that the development of the Salar de Uyuni is vital to permit large scale lithium usage in batteries. This is not the case.
    The resource there approximates to 18% of the world total.

  4. Luther Browning says:

    The limited supply of many resources required for EV’s will show up as the market expands. The Prius uses a rear earth element in the magnets of it’s motor. Most of it is in China and not much of it is available. What we overlook is the obvious, one example is the lead acid battery. Caterpillar Inc has come up with a carbon foam material coated with lead that might increase the capacity enough to be practical for an EV. They are producing batteries now but only the negative plate has the carbon foam. It’s little better than a conventional version. Still it shows progress can be made. How about electric power coils in the roadway? Little storage would be needed.

  5. There is a simple fact that readers must understand. Resources are not Reserves. Resources are how much total Lithium is geologically present in deposits that are worth exploiting. Reserves are how much of that resource one can realistically expect to extract. Headline grabbing figures of 30 million tonnes or even 13 million tonnes of Resources do not reflect how much can realistically be extracted. When that is analysed, the true Reserve figure is unfortunately much much lower – in the order of 4 million tonnes.

  6. Keith Evans says:

    In the National Research council report in the mid 1970′s the authors tabulated the reserves and resoures in the ground and then made well founded estimates of what could ulltimately be recovered as lithium products allowing for mining and processing losses from pegmatites. Accordingly, the listed tonnages were reduced by 50% and 25% respectively for underground and open pit based mining operations.

    In the case of the brines then known in the United States and Chile the total in situ tonnage was used as recovery data was either unknown or the information was regarded as company confidential.

    Many discoveries have been made subsequently (and they are not restricted to brines and pegmatites) and recoveries probably vary greatly. In my update I followed the precedent established by the NRC report.

    Based on our current knowledge I would roughly estimate that between 50% and 60% of the 30 million tonnes will be technically recoverable. With the rapid escalation in exploration activity as a result of the potentially large increase in demand the resource estimate will grow substantially.

    Indications of this were apparant at a large lithium conference held in January in Santiago, Chile. Within the industry there is widespread scepticism regarding Tahil’s statements concerning lithium resources. It is unfortunate, therefore, that he did not attend.

  7. Cyril R. says:

    There are various reasons for underestimations of recoverable reserves in the past. This is a very complex issue, but just a few factors that help getting some perspective:

    - Extraction companies have limited resources (human, knowlegde, time, money etc) to do exploration. That means they’ll only prospect the most promising locations, not the difficult and costly ones.

    - Extraction companies have an interest in scarcity, since it drives up prices. This relates with the above point of limited resources. Why hire more expensive expert geologist to search for reserves that cost 100x today’s spot price to extract, especially when that reduces the scarcity conception (thus reducing the structural long term cost). It just doesn’t make sense from a business perspective.

    - Technology development. Because this is uncertain, a lot of estimates use very close to 0 technical development, which is unrealistic. Advances in technology are uncertain, but assuming this variable to be (close to) zero isn’t a comprehensive way to deal with this uncertainty. Sensitivity analysis helps a lot here, while avoiding being coined optimistic or pessimistic.

  8. Cyril R. says:

    Let’s be conservative and use 4 million tons, with 4 kg lithium per EV, that is a billion EVs.

    The pure lithium metal cost per EV is tiny compared to the retail sales price of such a vehicle. Using $10/kg that’s $40 per vehicle.

    A doubling from this price level means +40$ per vehicle worth of lithium. Big deal. One tank of gasoline costs more than that!

  9. Al Fin says:

    We are more likely to see fuel cell hybrids rather than all electric vehicles. Lithium batteries lack the energy density needed for practical all electric cars. Fuel cells on the other hand are getting cheaper with the replacement of platinum by less expensive alternatives. Fuel cells allow rapid refueling with methanol or ethanol and a range as far as the size of your fuel tank allows.

  10. Cyril R. says:

    Advanced batteries also have good learning rates, just like fuel cells. Energy density is plenty, for really long trips one uses a small backup generator. Simple and effective.

    Hydrogen fuel cells have inherent entropic inefficiency problems, which makes it difficult for them to compete with EVs, especially when you consider the large increase in electric demand for electrolysers will increase average electricity costs, compounding the problem.

    Fuel cells have another problem, the lack of a market push. Lithium batteries have various markets in micro-electronics forcing cost reductions and improvements in battery performance. Fuel cells don’t have a market to push them into bigger markets like automotive. It’s entirely dependent on R&D from governments and car companies, and that’s a relatively tiny budget for the next big thing in the world in cars.

    Hydrogen fuel cells get more interesting when the hydrogen can be sourced from advanced non-electric sources.

  11. Cyril R. says:

    I see that the article makes mistakes when it comes to lithium carbonate versus pure lithium metal weight, which leads to errors in per kwh lithium requirements.

    0.3 kg of lithium should be 0.3 kg of lithium carbonate. Conventional lithium ion batteries use 0.08 kg lithium per kwh storage. Iron phosphate are as low as 0.04 kg lithium per kwh storage.

    This multiplies estimates by quite a large factor.

  12. Cyril R. says:

    So, using the range of estimates 4 million tons to 30 million tons lithium, and 1-2 kg lithium per vehicle (corresponding to 25-50 kwh of lithium iron phosphate batteries per vehicle) give us between 2 billion and 30 billion electric vehicles.

    What are we worried about?

  13. Lael S says:

    Thought this might be of interest, another MIT discovery.
    This would make li-ion batteries on par with ultra capacitors with charging in a matter of seconds. And the good news is that it should be available in only a couple years!

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