Why I am still anti Lithium and EV

13 04 2017

Originally published at Alice Friedemann’s excellent blog, energyskeptic.com/

[ This is by far the best paper explaining lithium reserves, lithium chemistry, recycling, political implications, and more. I’ve left out the charts, graphs, references, and much of the text, to see them go to the original paper in the link below.

I personally don’t think that electric cars will ever be viable because battery development is too slow, and given that oil can be hundreds of times more energy dense than a battery of the same weight, the laws of physics will prevent them from ever achieving enough energy density — see my post at Who Killed the Electric Car. (and also my more-up-to-date version and utility-scale energy storage batteries in my book When Trains Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation.  Some excerpts from my book about lithium and energy storage:

Li-ion energy storage batteries are more expensive than PbA or NaS, can be charged and discharged only a discrete number of times, can fail or lose capacity if overheated, and the cost of preventing overheating is expensive. Lithium does not grow on trees. The amount of lithium needed for utility-scale storage is likely to deplete known resources (Vazquez, S., et al. 2010. Energy storage systems for transport and grid applications. IEEE Transactions on Industrial Electronics 57(12): 3884).

To provide enough energy for 1 day of storage for the United states, li-ion batteries would cost $11.9 trillion dollars, take up 345 square miles and weigh 74 million tons (DOE/EPRI. 2013. Electricity storage handbook in collaboration with NRECA. USA: Sandia National Laboratories and Electric Power Research Institute) 

Barnhart et al. (2013) looked at how much materials and energy it would take to make batteries that could store up to 12 hours of average daily world power demand, 25.3 TWh. Eighteen months of world-wide primary energy production would be needed to mine and manufacture these batteries, and material production limits were reached for many minerals even when energy storage devices got all of the world’s production (with zinc, sodium, and sulfur being the exceptions). Annual production by mass would have to double for lead, triple for lithium, and go up by a factor of 10 or more for cobalt and vanadium, driving up prices. The best to worst in terms of material availability are: CAES, NaS, ZnBr, PbA, PHS, Li-ion, and VRB (Barnhart, C., et al. 2013. On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage. Energy Environment Science 2013(6): 1083–1092). ]

Vikström, H., Davidsson, S., Höök, M. 2013. Lithium availability and future production outlooks. Applied Energy, 110(10): 252-266. 28 pages



Lithium is a highly interesting metal, in part due to the increasing interest in lithium-ion batteries. Several recent studies have used different methods to estimate whether the lithium production can meet an increasing demand, especially from the transport sector, where lithium-ion batteries are the most likely technology for electric cars. The reserve and resource estimates of lithium vary greatly between different studies and the question whether the annual production rates of lithium can meet a growing demand is seldom adequately explained. This study presents a review and compilation of recent estimates of quantities of lithium available for exploitation and discusses the uncertainty and differences between these estimates. Also, mathematical curve fitting models are used to estimate possible future annual production rates. This estimation of possible production rates are compared to a potential increased demand of lithium if the International Energy Agency’s Blue Map Scenarios are fulfilled regarding electrification of the car fleet. We find that the availability of lithium could in fact be a problem for fulfilling this scenario if lithium-ion batteries are to be used. This indicates that other battery technologies might have to be implemented for enabling an electrification of road transports.


  • Review of reserves, resources and key properties of 112 lithium deposits
  • Discussions of widely diverging results from recent lithium supply estimates
  • Forecasting future lithium production by resource-constrained models
  • Exploring implications for future deployment of electric cars


Global transportation mainly relies on one single fossil resource, namely petroleum, which supplies 95% of the total energy [1]. In fact, about 62% of all world oil consumption takes place in the transport sector [2]. Oil prices have oscillated dramatically over the last few years, and the price of oil reached $100 per barrel in January 2008, before skyrocketing to nearly $150/barrel in July 2008. A dramatic price collapse followed in late 2008, but oil prices have at present time returned to over $100/barrel. Also, peak oil concerns, resulting in imminent oil production limitations, have been voiced by various studies [3–6].

It has been found that continued oil dependence is environmentally, economically and socially unsustainable [7].

The price uncertainty and decreasing supply might result in severe challenges for different transporters. Nygren et al. [8] showed that even the most optimistic oil production forecasts implied pessimistic futures for the aviation industry. Curtis [9] found that globalization may be undermined by peak oil’s effect on transportation costs and reliability of freight.

Barely 2% of the world electricity is used by transportation [2], where most of this is made up by trains, trams, and trolley buses.

A high future demand of Li for battery applications may arise if society choses to employ Li-ion technologies for a decarbonization of the road transport sector.

Batteries are at present time the second most common use, but are increasing rapidly as the use of li-ion batteries for portable electronics [12], as well as electric and hybrid cars, are becoming more frequent. For example, the lithium consumption for batteries in the U.S increased with 194 % from 2005 to 2010 [12]. Relatively few academic studies have focused on the very abundance of raw materials needed to supply a potential increase in Li demand from transport sector [13]. Lithium demand is growing and it is important to investigate whether this could lead to a shortfall in the future.


[My comment: utility scale energy storage batteries in commercial production are lithium, and if this continues, this sector alone would quickly consume all available lithium supplies: see Barnhart, C., et al. 2013. On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage. Energy Environment Science 2013(6): 1083–1092.]

Aim of this study

Recently, a number of studies have investigated future supply prospects for lithium [13–16]. However, these studies reach widely different results in terms of available quantities, possible production trajectories, as well as expected future demand. The most striking difference is perhaps the widely different estimates for available resources and reserves, where different numbers of deposits are included and different types of resources are assessed. It has been suggested that mineral resources will be a future constraint for society [17], but a great deal of this debate is often spent on the concept of geological availability, which can be presented as the size of the tank. What is frequently not reflected upon is that society can only use the quantities that can be extracted at a certain pace and be delivered to consumers by mining operations, which can be described as the tap. The key concept here is that the size of the tank and the size of the tap are two fundamentally different things.

This study attempts to present a comprehensive review of known lithium deposits and their estimated quantities of lithium available for exploitation and discuss the uncertainty and differences among published studies, in order to bring clarity to the subject. The estimated reserves are then used as a constraint in a model of possible future production of lithium and the results of the model are compared to possible future demand from an electrification of the car fleet. The forecasts are based on open, public data and should be used for estimating long term growth and trends. This is not a substitute for economical short-term prognoses, but rather a complementary vision.

Data sources

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been particularly useful for obtaining production data series, but also the Swedish Geological Survey (SGU) and the British Geological Survey (BGS) deserves honourable mention for providing useful material. Kushnir and Sandén [18], Tahil [19, 20] along with many other recent lithium works have also been useful. Kesler et al. [21] helped to provide a broad overview of general lithium geology.

Information on individual lithium deposits has been compiled from numerous sources, primarily building on the tables found in [13–16]. In addition, several specialized articles about individual deposits have been used, for instance [22–26]. Public industry reports and annual yearbooks from mining operators and lithium producers, such as SQM [27], Roskill [28] or Talison Lithium [29], also helped to create a holistic data base.

In this study, we collected information on global lithium deposits. Country of occurrence, deposit type, main mineral, and lithium content were gathered as well as published estimates for reserves and resources. Some deposits had detailed data available for all parameters, while others had very little information available. Widely diverging estimates for reserves and resources could sometimes be found for the same deposit, and in such cases the full interval between the minimum and maximum estimates is presented. Deposits without reserve or resource estimates are included in the data set, but do not contribute to the total. Only available data and information that could be found in the public and academic spheres were compiled in this study. It is likely that undisclosed and/or proprietary data could contribute to the world’s lithium volume but due to data availability no conclusions on to which extent could be made.

Geological overview

In order to properly estimate global lithium availability, and a feasible reserve estimate for modelling future production, this section presents an overview of lithium geology. Lithium is named after the Greek word “lithos” meaning “stone”, represented by the symbol Li and has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions, lithium is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali group of elements.

As all alkali elements, Li is highly reactive and flammable. For this reason, it never occurs freely in nature and only appears in compounds, usually ionic compounds. The nuclear properties of Li are peculiar since its nuclei verge on instability and two stable isotopes have among the lowest binding energies per nucleon of all stable nuclides. Due to this nuclear instability, lithium is less abundant in the solar system than 25 of the first 32 chemical elements [30].

Resources and reserves

An important frequent shortcoming in the discussion on availability of lithium is the lack of proper terminology and standardized concepts for assessing the available amounts of lithium. Published studies talk about “reserves”, “resources”, “recoverable resources”, “broad-based reserves”, “in-situ resources”, and “reserve base”.

A wide range of reporting systems minerals exist, such as NI 43-101, USGS, Crirsco, SAMREC and the JORC code, and further discussion and references concerning this can be found in Vikström [31]. Definitions and classifications used are often similar, but not always consistent, adding to the confusion when aggregating data. Consistent definitions may be used in individual studies, but frequently figures from different methodologies are combined as there is no universal and standardized framework. In essence, published literature is a jumble of inconsistent figures. If one does not know what the numbers really mean, they are not simply useless – they are worse, since they tend to mislead.

Broadly speaking, resources are generally defined as the geologically assured quantity that is available for exploitation, while reserves are the quantity that is exploitable with current technical and socioeconomic conditions. The reserves are what are important for production, while resources are largely an academic figure with little relevance for real supply. For example, usually less than one tenth of the coal resources are considered economically recoverable [32, 33]. Kesler et al. [21] stress that available resources needs to be converted into reserves before they can be produced and used by society. Still, some analysts seemingly use the terms ‘resources’ and ‘reserves’ synonymously.

It should be noted that the actual reserves are dynamic and vary depending on many factors such as the available technology, economic demand, political issues and social factors. Technological improvements may increase reserves by opening new deposit types for exploitation or by lowering production costs. Deposits that have been mined for some time can increase or decrease their reserves due to difficulties with determining the ore grade and tonnage in advance [34]. Depletion and decreasing concentrations may increase recovery costs, thus lowering reserves. Declining demand and prices may also reduce reserves, while rising prices or demand may increase them. Political decisions, legal issues or environmental policies may prohibit exploitation of certain deposits, despite the fact significant resources may be available.

For lithium, resource/reserve classifications were typically developed for solid ore deposits. However, brine – presently the main lithium source – is a fluid and commonly used definitions can be difficult to apply due to pumping complications and varying concentrations.

Houston et al. [35] describes the problem in detail and suggest a change in NI 43-101 to account for these problems. If better standards were available for brines then estimations could be more reliable and accurate, as discussed in Kushnir and Sandén [18].

Environmental aspects and policy changes can also significantly influence recoverability. Introduction of clean air requirements and public resistance to surface mining in the USA played a major role in the decreasing coal reserves [33].

It is entirely possible that public outcries against surface mining or concerns for the environment in lithium producing will lead to restrictions that affect the reserves. As an example, the water consumption of brine production is very high and Tahil [19] estimates that brine operations consume 65% of the fresh water in the Salar de Atacama region. [ The Atacama only gets 0.6 inches of rain a year ]

Regarding future developments of recoverability, Fasel and Tran [36] monotonously assumes that increasing lithium demand will result in more reserves being found as prices rise. So called cumulative availability curves are sometimes used to estimate how reserves will change with changing prices, displaying the estimated amount of resource against the average unit cost ranked from lowest to highest cost. This method is used by Yaksic and Tilton [14] to address lithium availability. This concept has its merits for describing theoretical availability, but the fact that the concept is based on average cost, not marginal cost, has been described as a major weakness, making cumulative availability curves disregard the real cost structure and has little – if any – relevance for future price and production rate [37].

Production and occurrence of lithium

The high reactivity of lithium makes it geochemistry complex and interesting. Lithium-minerals are generally formed in magmatic processes. The small ionic size makes it difficult for lithium to be included in early stages of mineral crystallization, and resultantly lithium remains in the molten parts where it gets enriched until it can be solidified in the final stages [38].

At present, over 120 lithium-containing minerals are known, but few of them contain high concentrations or are frequently occurring. Lithium can also be found in naturally occurring salt solutions as brines in dry salt lake environments. Compared to the fairly large number of lithium mineral and brine deposits, few of them are of actual or potential commercial value. Many are very small, while others are too low in grade [39]. This chapter will briefly review the properties of those deposits and present a compilation of the known deposits.

Lithium mineral deposits

Lithium extraction from minerals is primarily done with minerals occurring in pegmatite formations. However, pegmatite is rather challenging to exploit due to its hardness in conjunction with generally problematic access to the belt-like deposits they usually occur in. Table 1 describes some typical lithium-bearing minerals and their characteristics. Australia is currently the world’s largest producer of lithium from minerals, mainly from spodumene [39]. Petalite is commonly used for glass manufacture due to its high iron content, while lepidolite was earlier used as a lithium source but presently has lost its importance due to high fluorine content. Exploitation must generally be tailor-made for a certain mineral as they differ quite significantly in chemical composition, hardness and other properties[13]. Table 2 presents some mineral deposits and their properties.

Recovery rates for mining typically range from 60 to 70%, although significant treatment is required for transforming the produced Li into a marketable form. For example, [40, 41] describe how lithium are produced from spodumene. The costs of acid, soda ash, and energy are a very significant part of the total production cost but may be partially alleviated by the market demand for the sodium sulphate by-products.

Lithium brine deposits

Lithium can also be found in salt lake brines that have high concentrations of mineral salts. Such brines can be reachable directly from the surface or deep underground in saline expanses located in very dry regions that allow salts to persist. High concentration lithium brine is mainly found in high altitude locations such as the Andes and south-western China. Chile, the world largest lithium producer, derives most of the production from brines located at the large salt flat of Salar de Atacama.

Lithium has similar ionic properties as magnesium since their ionic size is nearly identical; making is difficult to separate lithium from magnesium. A low Mg/Li ratio in brine means that it is easier, and therefore more economical to extract lithium.

Lithium Market Research SISThe ratio differs significant at currently producing brine deposits and range from less than 1 to over 30 [14]. The lithium concentration in known brine deposits is usually quite low and range from 0.017–0.15% with significant variability among the known deposits in the world (Table 3).

Exploitation of lithium brines starts with the brine being pumped from the ground into evaporation ponds. The actual evaporation is enabled by incoming solar radiation, so it is desirable for the operation to be located in sunny areas with low annual precipitation rate. The net evaporation rate determines the area of the required ponds [42].

It can easily take between one and two years before the final product is ready to be used, and even longer in cold and rainy areas.

The long timescales required for production can make brine deposits ill fit for sudden changes in demand. Table 3. Properties of known brine deposits in the world.

Lithium from sea water

The world’s oceans contain a wide number of metals, such as gold, lithium or uranium, dispersed at low concentrations. The mass of the world’s oceans is approximately 1.35*1012 Mt [47], making vast amounts of theoretical resources seemingly available. Eckhardt [48] and Fasel and Tran [36] announce that more than 2,000,000 Mt lithium is available from the seas, essentially making it an “unlimited” source given its geological abundance. Tahil [20] also notes that oceans have been proclaimed as an unlimited Li-source since the 1970s.

The world’s oceans and some highly saline lakes do in fact contain very large quantities of lithium, but if it will become practical and economical to produce lithium from this source is highly questionable.

For example, consider gold in sea water – in total nearly 7,000,000 Mt. This is an enormous amount compared to the cumulative world production of 0.17 Mt accumulated since the dawn of civilization [49]. There are also several technical options available for gold extraction. However, the average gold concentration range from <0.001 to 0.005 ppb [50]. This means that one km3 of sea water would give only 5.5 kg of gold. The gold is simply too dilute to be viable for commercial extraction and it is not surprising that all attempts to achieve success – including those of the Nobel laureate Fritz Haber – has failed to date.

Average lithium concentration in the oceans has been estimated to 0.17 ppm [14, 36]. Kushnir and Sandén [18] argue that it is theoretically possible to use a wide range of advanced technologies to extract lithium from seawater – just like the case for gold. However, no convincing methods have been demonstrated this far. A small scale Japanese experiment managed to produce 750 g of lithium metal from processing 4,200 m3 water with a recovery efficiency of 19.7% [36]. This approach has been described in more detail by others [51–53].

Grosjean et al. [13] points to the fact that even after decades of improvement, recovery from seawater is still more than 10–30 times more costly than production from pegmatites and brines. It is evident that huge quantities of water would have to be processed to produce any significant amounts of lithium. Bardi [54] presents theoretical calculations on this, stating that a production volume of lithium comparable to present world production (~25 kt annually) would require 1.5*103 TWh of electrical energy for pumping through separation membranes in addition to colossal volumes of seawater. Furthermore, Tahil [20] estimated that a seawater processing flow equivalent to the average discharge of the River Nile – 300,000,000 m3/day or over 22 times the global petroleum industry flow of 85 million barrels per day – would only give 62 tons of lithium per day or roughly 20 kt per year. Furthermore, a significant amount of fresh water and hydrochloric acid will be required to flush out unwanted minerals (Mg, K, etc.) and extract lithium from the adsorption columns [20].

In summary, extraction from seawater appears not feasible and not something that should be considered viable in practice, at least not in the near future.

Estimated lithium availability

From data compilation and analysis of 112 deposits, this study concludes that 15 Mt areImage result for lithium reasonable as a reference case for the global reserves in the near and medium term. 30 Mt is seen as a high case estimate for available lithium reserves and this number is also found in the upper range in literature. These two estimates are used as constraints in the models of future production in this study.

Estimates on world reserves and resources vary significantly among published studies. One main reason for this is likely the fact that different deposits, as well as different number of deposits, are aggregated in different studies. Many studies, such as the ones presented by the USGS, do not give explicitly state the number of deposits included and just presents aggregated figures on a national level. Even when the number and which deposits that have been used are specified, analysts can arrive to wide different estimates (Table 5). It should be noted that a trend towards increasing reserves and resources with time can generally be found, in particularly in USGS assessments. Early reports, such as Evans [56] or USGS [59], excluded several countries from the reserve estimates due to a lack of available information. This was mitigated in USGS [73] when reserves estimates for Argentina, Australia, and Chile have been revised based on new information from governmental and industry sources. However, there are still relatively few assessments on reserves, in particular for Russia, and it is concluded that much future work is required to handle this shortcoming. Gruber et al. [16] noted that 83% of global lithium resources can be found in six brine, two pegmatite and two sedimentary deposits. From our compilation, it can also be found that the distribution of global lithium reserves and resources are very uneven.

Three quarters of everything can typically be found in the ten largest deposits (Figure 1 and 2). USGS [12] pinpoint that 85% of the global reserves are situated in Chile and China (Figure 3) and that Chile and Australia accounted for 70 % of the world production of 28,100 tonnes in 2011 [12]. From Table 2 and 3, one can note a significant spread in estimated reserves and resources for the deposits. This divergence is much smaller for minerals (5.6–8.2 Mt) than for brines (6.5– 29.4 Mt), probably resulting from the difficulty associated with estimating brine accumulations consistently. Evans [75] also points to the problem of using these frameworks on brine deposits, which are fundamentally different from solid ores. Table 5. Comparison of published lithium assessments.


One thing that may or may not have a large implication for future production is recycling. The projections presented in the production model of this study describe production of lithium from virgin materials. The total production of lithium could potentially increase significantly if high rates of recycling were implemented of the used lithium, which is mentioned in many studies.

USGS [12] state that recycling of lithium has been insignificant historically, but that it is increasing as the use of lithium for batteries are growing. However, the recycling of lithium from batteries is still more or less non-existent, with a collection rate of used Li-ion batteries of only about 3% [93]. When the Li-ion batteries are in fact recycled, it is usually not the lithium that is recycled, but other more precious metals such as cobalt [18].

If this will change in the future is uncertain and highly dependent on future metal prices, but it is still commonly argued for and assumed that the recycling of lithium will grow significantly, very soon. Goonan [94] claims that recycling rates will increase from vehicle batteries in vehicles since such recycling systems already exist for lead-acid batteries. Kushnir and Sandén [18] argue that large automotive batteries will be technically easier to recycle than smaller batteries and also claims that economies of scale will emerge when the use for batteries for vehicles increase. According to the IEA [95], full recycling systems are projected to be in place sometime between 2020 and 2030. Similar assumptions are made by more or less all studies dealing with future lithium production and use for electric vehicles and Kushnir and Sandén [18] state that it is commonly assumed that recycling will take place, enabling recycled lithium to make up for a big part of the demand but also conclude that the future recycling rate is highly uncertain.

There are several reasons to question the probability of high recycling shares for Li-ion batteries. Kushnir and Sandén [18] state that lithium recycling economy is currently not good and claims that the economic conditions could decrease even more in the future. Sullivan and Gaines [96] argue that the Li-ion battery chemistry is complex and still evolving, thus making it difficult for the industry to develop profitable pathways. Georgi-Maschler [93] highlight that two established recycling processes exist for recycling Li-ion batteries, but one of them lose most of the lithium in the process of recovering the other valuable metals. Ziemann et al. [97] states that lithium recovery from rechargeable batteries is not efficient at present time, mainly due to the low lithium content of around 2% and the rather low price of lithium.

In this study we choose not to include recycling in the projected future supply for several reasons. In a short perspective, looking towards 2015-2020, it cannot be considered likely that any considerable amount of lithium will be recycled from batteries since it is currently not economical to do so and no proven methods to do it on a large scale industrial level appear to exist. If it becomes economical to recycle lithium from batteries it will take time to build the capacity for the recycling to take place. Also, the battery lifetime is often projected to be 10 years or more, and to expect any significant amounts of lithium to be recycled within this period of time is simply not realistic for that reason either.

The recycling capacity is expected to be far from reaching significant levels before 2025 according to Wanger [92]. It is also important to separate the recycling rates of products to the recycled content in new products. Even if a percentage of the product is recycled at the end of the life cycle, this is no guarantee that the use of recycled content in new products will be as high. The use of Li-ion batteries is projected to grow fast. If the growth happens linearly, and high recycling rates are accomplished, recycling could start constituting a large part of the lithium demand, but if the growth happens exponentially, recycling can never keep up with the growth that has occurred during the 10 years lag during the battery lifetime. In a longer time perspective, the inclusion of recycling could be argued for with expected technological refinement, but certainties regarding technology development are highly uncertain. Still, most studies include recycling as a major part of future lithium production, which can have very large implications on the results and conclusions drawn. Kushnir and Sandén [18] suggest that an 80% lithium recovery rate is achievable over a medium time frame. The scenarios in Gruber et al. [16], assumes recycling participation rates of 90 %, 96% and 100%. In their scenario using the highest assumed recycling, the quantities of lithium needed to be mined are decreased to only about 37% of the demand. Wanger [92] looks at a shorter time perspective and estimates that a 40% or 100% recycling rate would reduce the lithium consumption with 10% or 25% respectively by 2030. Mohr et al. [15] assume that the recycling rate starts at 0%, approaching a limit of 80%, resulting in recycled lithium making up significant parts of production, but only several decades into the future. IEA [95] projects that full recycling systems will be in place around 2020–2030.

The impact of assumed recycling rates can indeed be very significant, and the use of this should be handled with care and be well motivated.

Future demand for lithium

To estimate whether the projected future production levels will be sufficient, it isImage result for lithiuminteresting to compare possible production levels with potential future demand. The use of lithium is currently dominated by use for ceramics and glass closely followed by batteries. The current lithium demand for different markets can be seen in Figure 7. USGS [12] state that the lithium use in batteries have grown significantly in recent years as the use of lithium batteries in portable electronics have become increasingly common. Figure 7 (Ceramics and glass 29%, Batteries 27%, Other uses 16%, Lubrication greases 12%, Continuous casting 5%, Air treatment 4%, Polymers 3%, Primary aluminum production 2%, Pharmaceuticals 2%).

Global lithium demand for different end-use markets. Source: USGS [12] USGS [12] state that the total lithium consumption in 2011 was between 22,500 and 24,500 tonnes. This is often projected to grow, especially as the use of Li-ion batteries for electric cars could potentially increase demand significantly. This study presents a simple example of possible future demand of lithium, assuming a constant demand for other uses and demand for electric cars to grow according to a scenario of future sales of

electric cars. The current car fleet consists of about 600 million passenger cars. The sale of new passenger cars in 2011 was about 60 million cars [98]. This existing vehicle park is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels, primarily gasoline and diesel, but also natural gas to a smaller extent. Increasing oil prices, concerns about a possible peak in oil production and problems with anthropogenic global warming makes it desirable to move away from fossil energy dependence. As a mitigation and pathway to a fossil-fuel free mobility, cars running partially or totally on electrical energy are commonly proposed. This includes electric vehicles (EVs), hybrid vehicles (HEVs) and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid vehicles), all on the verge of large-scale commercialization and implementation. IEA [99] concluded that a total of 1.5 million hybrid and electric vehicles had been sold worldwide between the year 2000 and 2010.

Both the expected number of cars as well as the amount of lithium required per vehicle is important. As can be seen from Table 9, the estimates of lithium demand for PEHV and EVs differ significantly between studies. Also, some studies do not differentiate between different technical options and only gives a single Li-consumption estimate for an “electric vehicle”, for instance the 3 kg/car found by Mohr et al. [15]. The mean values from Table 9 are found to be 4.9 kg for an EV and 1.9 kg for a PHEV.

As the battery size determines the vehicles range, it is likely that the range will continue to increase in the future, which could increase the lithium demand. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to assume that the technology will improve, thus reducing the lithium requirements. In this study a lithium demand of 160 g Li/kWh is assumed, an assumption discussed in detail by Kushnir and Sandén [18]. It is then assumed that typical batteries capacities will be 9 kWh in a PHEV and 25 kWh in an EV. This gives a resulting lithium requirement of 1.4 kg for a PHEV and 4 kg for an EV, which is used as an estimate in this study. Many current electrified cars have a lower capacity than 24 kWh, but to become more attractive to consumers the range of the vehicles will likely have to increase, creating a need for larger batteries [104]. It should be added that the values used are at the lower end compared to other assessments (Table 9) and should most likely not be seen as overestimates future lithium requirements.

Figure 8 shows the span of the different production forecasts up until 2050 made in this study, together with an estimated demand based on the demand staying constant on the high estimate of 2010– 2011, adding an estimated demand created by the electric car projections done by IEA [101]. This is a very simplistic estimation future demand, but compared to the production projections it indicates that lithium availability should not be automatically disregarded as a potential issue for future electric car production. The amount of electric cars could very well be smaller or larger that this scenario, but the scenario used does not assume a complete electrification of the car fleet by 2050 and such scenarios would mean even larger demand of lithium. It is likely that lithium demand for other uses will also grow in the coming decades, why total demand might increase more that indicated here. This study does not attempt to estimate the evolution of demand for other uses, and the demand estimate for other uses can be considered a conservative one. Figure 8. The total lithium demand of a constant current lithium demand combined with growth of electric vehicles according to IEA’s blue map scenario [101] assuming a demand for 1.4 kg of lithium per PHEV and 4.0 kg per EV. The span of forecasted production levels range from the base case Gompertz model

Concluding discussion

Potential future production of lithium was modeled with three different production curves. In a short perspective, until 2015–2020, the three models do not differ much, but in the longer perspective the Richards and Logistic curves show a growth at a vastly higher pace than the Gompertz curve. The Richards model gives the best fit to the historic data, and lies in between the other two and might be the most likely development. A faster growth than the logistic model cannot be ruled out, but should be considered unlikely, since it usually mimics plausible free market exploitation [89]. Other factors, such as decreased lithium concentration in mined material, economics, political and environmental problems could also limit production.

It can be debated whether this kind of forecasting should be used for short term projections, and the actual production in coming years can very well differ from our models, but it does at least indicate that lithium availability could be a potential problem in the coming decades. In a longer time perspective up to 2050, the projected lithium demand for alternative vehicles far exceeds our most optimistic production prognoses.

If 100 million alternative vehicles, as projected in IEA [101] are produced annually using lithium battery technology, the lithium reserves would be exhausted in just a few years, even if the production could be cranked up faster than the models in this study. This indicates that it is important that other battery technologies should be investigated as well.

It should be added that these projections do not consider potential recycling of the lithium, which is discussed further earlier in this paper. On the other hand, it appears it is highly unlikely that recycling will become common as soon as 2020, while total demand appears to potentially rise over maximum production around that date. If, when, and to what extent recycling will take place is hard to predict, although it appears more likely that high recycling rates will take place in electric cars than other uses.

Much could change before 2050. The spread between the different production curves are much larger and it is hard to estimate what happens with technology over such a long time frame. However, the Blue Map Scenario would in fact create a demand of lithium that is higher than the peak production of the logistic curve for the standard case, and close to the peak production in the high URR case.

Improved efficiency can decrease the lithium demand in the batteries, but as Kushnir and Sandén [18] point out, there is a minimum amount of lithium required tied to the cell voltage and chemistry of the battery.

IEA [95] acknowledges that technologies that are not available today must be developed to reach the Blue Map scenarios and that technology development is uncertain. This does not quite coincide with other studies claiming that lithium availability will not be a problem for production of electric cars in the future.

It is also possible that other uses will raise the demand for lithium even further. One industry that in a longer time perspective could potentially increase the demand for lithium is fusion, where lithium is used to breed tritium in the reactors. If fusion were commercialized, which currently seems highly uncertain, it would demand large volumes of lithium [36].

Further problems with the lithium industry are that the production and reserves are situated in a few countries (USGS [12] in Mt: Chile 7.5, China 3.5, Australia 0.97, Argentina 0.85, Other 0.135]. One can also note that most of the lithium is concentrated to a fairly small amount of deposits, nearly 50% of both reserves and resources can be found in Salar de Atacama alone. Kesler et al. [21] note that Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and China hold 70% of the brine deposits. Grosjean et al. [13] even points to the ABC triangle (i.e. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile) and its control of well over 40% of the world resources and raises concern for resource nationalism and monopolistic behavior. Even though Bolivia has large resources, there are many political and technical problems, such as transportation and limited amount of available fresh water, in need of solutions [18].

Regardless of global resource size, the high concentration of reserves and production to very few countries is not something that bode well for future supplies. The world is currently largely dependent on OPEC for oil, and that creates possibilities of political conflicts. The lithium reserves are situated in mainly two countries. It could be considered problematic for countries like the US to be dependent on Bolivia, Chile and Argentina for political reasons [105]. Abell and Oppenheimer [105] discuss the absurdity in switching from dependence to dependence since resources are finite. Also, Kushnir and Sandén [18] discusses the problems with being dependent on a few producers, if a problem unexpectedly occurs at the production site it may not be possible to continue the production and the demand cannot be satisfied.

Final remarks

Although there are quite a few uncertainties with the projected production of lithium and demand for lithium for electric vehicles, this study indicates that the possible lithium production could be a limiting factor for the number of electric vehicles that can be produced, and how fast they can be produced. If large parts of the car fleet will run on electricity and rely on lithium based batteries in the coming decades, it is possible, and maybe even likely, that lithium availability will be a limiting factor.

To decrease the impact of this, as much lithium as possible must be recycled and possibly other battery technologies not relying on lithium needs to be developed. It is not certain how big the recoverable reserves of lithium are in the world and estimations in different studies differ significantly. Especially the estimations for brine need to be further investigated. Some estimates include production from seawater, making the reserves more or less infinitely large. We suggest that it is very unlikely that seawater or lakes will become a practical and economic source of lithium, mainly due to the high Mg/Li ratio and low concentrations if lithium, meaning that large quantities of water would have to be processed. Until otherwise is proved lithium reserves from seawater and lakes should not be included in the reserve estimations. Although the reserve estimates differ, this appears to have marginal impact on resulting projections of production, especially in a shorter time perspective. What are limiting are not the estimated reserves, but likely maximum annual production, which is often missed in similar studies.

If electric vehicles with li-ion batteries will be used to a very high extent, there are other problems to account for. Instead of being dependent on oil we could become dependent on lithium if li-ion batteries, with lithium reserves mainly located in two countries. It is important to plan for this to avoid bottlenecks or unnecessarily high prices. Lithium is a finite resource and the production cannot be infinitely large due to geological, technical and economical restraints. The concentration of lithium metal appears to be decreasing, which could make it more expensive and difficult to extract the lithium in the future. To enable a transition towards a car fleet based on electrical energy, other types of batteries should also be considered and a continued development of battery types using less lithium and/or other metals are encouraged. High recycling rates should also be aimed for if possible and continued investigations of recoverable resources and possible production of lithium are called for. Acknowledgements We would like to thank Steve Mohr for helpful comments and ideas. Sergey Yachenkov has our sincerest appreciation for providing assistance with translation of Russian material.

Nine Reasons Why Low Oil Prices May “Morph” Into Something Much Worse

24 07 2015

As oil price collapse to under $50……… by Gail Tverberg, orginally posted here.

Why are commodity prices, including oil prices, lagging? Ultimately, the question comes back to, “Why isn’t the world economy making very many of the end products that use these commodities?” If workers were getting rich enough to buy new homes and cars, demand for these products would be raising the prices of commodities used to build and operate cars, including the price of oil. If governments were rich enough to build an increasing number of roads and more public housing, there would be demand for the commodities used to build roads and public housing.

It looks to me as though we are heading into a deflationary depression, because the prices of commodities are falling below the cost of extraction. We need rapidly rising wages and debt if commodity prices are to rise back to 2011 levels or higher. This isn’t happening. Instead, Janet Yellen is talking about raising interest rates later this year, and  we are seeing commodity prices fall further and further. Let me explain some pieces of what is happening.

1. We have been forcing economic growth upward since 1981 through the use of falling interest rates. Interest rates are now so low that it is hard to force rates down further, in order to encourage further economic growth. 

Falling interest rates are hugely beneficial for the economy. If interest rates stop dropping, or worse yet, begin to rise, we will lose this very beneficial factor affecting the economy. The economy will tend to grow even less quickly, bringing down commodity prices further. The world economy may even start contracting, as it heads into a deflationary depression.

If we look at 10-year US treasury interest rates, there has been a steep fall in rates since 1981.

Figure 1. Chart prepared by St. Louis Fed using data through July 20, 2015.

In fact, almost any kind of interest rates, including interest rates of shorter terms, mortgage interest rates, bank prime loan rates, and Moody’s Seasoned AAA Bonds, show a fairly similar pattern. There is more variability in very short-term interest rates, but the general direction has been down, to the point where interest rates can drop no further.

Declining interest rates stimulate the economy for many reasons:

  • Would-be homeowners find monthly payments are lower, so more people can afford to purchase homes. People already owning homes can afford to “move up” to more expensive homes.
  • Would-be auto owners find monthly payments lower, so more people can afford cars.
  • Employment in the home and auto industries is stimulated, as is employment in home furnishing industries.
  • Employment at colleges and universities grows, as lower interest rates encourage more students to borrow money to attend college.
  • With lower interest rates, businesses can afford to build factories and stores, even when the anticipated rate of return is not very high. The higher demand for autos, homes, home furnishing, and colleges adds to the success of businesses.
  • The low interest rates tend to raise asset prices, including prices of stocks, bonds, homes and farmland, making people feel richer.
  • If housing prices rise sufficiently, homeowners can refinance their mortgages, often at a lower interest rate. With the funds from refinancing, they can remodel, or buy a car, or take a vacation.
  • With low interest rates, the total amount that can be borrowed without interest payments becoming a huge burden rises greatly. This is especially important for governments, since they tend to borrow endlessly, without collateral for their loans.

While this very favorable trend in interest rates has been occurring for years, we don’t know precisely how much impact this stimulus is having on the economy. Instead, the situation is the “new normal.” In some ways, the benefit is like traveling down a hill on a skateboard, and not realizing how much the slope of the hill is affecting the speed of the skateboard. The situation goes on for so long that no one notices the benefit it confers.

If the economy is now moving too slowly, what do we expect to happen when interest rates start rising? Even level interest rates become a problem, if we have become accustomed to the economic boost we get from falling interest rates.

2. The cost of oil extraction tends to rise over time because the cheapest to extract oil is removed first. In fact, this is true for nearly all commodities, including metals. 

If costs always remained the same, we could represent the production of a barrel of oil, or a pound of metal, using the following diagram.

Figure 2

If production is becoming increasingly efficient, then we might represent the situation as follows, where the larger size “box” represents the larger output, using the same inputs.

Figure 3

For oil and for many other commodities, we are experiencing the opposite situation. Instead of becoming increasingly efficient, we are becoming increasingly inefficient (Figure 4). This happens because deeper wells need to be dug, or because we need to use fracking equipment and fracking sand, or because we need to build special refineries to handle the pollution problems of a particular kind of oil. Thus we need more resources to produce the same amount of oil.

Figure 4. Growing inefficiency

Some people might call the situation “diminishing returns,” because the cheap oil has already been extracted, and we need to move on to the more difficult to extract oil. This adds extra steps, and thus extra costs. I have chosen to use the slightly broader term of “increasing inefficiency” because it indicates that the nature of these additional costs is not being restricted.

Very often, new steps need to be added to the process of extraction because wells are deeper, or because refining requires the removal of more pollutants. At times, the higher costs involve changing to a new process that is believed to be more environmentally sound.

Figure 5

The cost of extraction keeps rising, as the cheapest to extract resources become depleted, and as environmental pollution becomes more of a problem.

3. Using more inputs to create the same or smaller output pushes the world economy toward contraction.

Essentially, the problem is that the same quantity of inputs is yielding less and less of the desired final product. For a given quantity of inputs, we are getting more and more intermediate products (such as fracking sand, “scrubbers” for coal-fired power plants, desalination plants for fresh water, and administrators for colleges), but we are not getting as much output in the traditional sense, such as barrels of oil, kilowatts of electricity, gallons of fresh water, or educated young people, ready to join the work force.

We don’t have unlimited inputs. As more and more of our inputs are assigned to creating intermediate products to work around limits we are reaching (including pollution limits), fewer of our resources can go toward producing desired end products. The result is less economic growth. Because of this declining economic growth, there is less demand for commodities. So, prices for commodities tend to drop.

This outcome is to be expected, if increased efficiency is part of what creates economic growth, and what we are experiencing now is the opposite: increased inefficiency.

4. The way workers afford higher commodity costs is primarily through higher wages. At times, higher debt can also be a workaround. If neither of these is available, commodity prices can fall below the cost of production.

If there is a significant increase in the cost of products like houses and cars, this presents a huge challenge to workers. Usually, workers pay for these products using a combination of wages and debt. If costs rise, they either need higher wages, or a debt package that makes the product more affordable–perhaps lower rates, or a longer period for payment.

Commodity costs have been rising very rapidly in the last fifteen years or so. According to a chart prepared by Steven Kopits, some of the major costs of extracting oil began increasing by 10.9% per year, in about 1999.

Figure 6. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing trends in world oil exploration and production costs per barrel. CAGR is

In fact, the inflation-adjusted prices of almost all energy and metal products tended to rise rapidly during the period 1999 to 2008 (Figure 7). This was a time period when the amount of mortgage debt was increasing rapidly as lenders began offering home loans with low initial interest rates to almost anyone, including those with low credit scores and irregular income. When debt levels began falling in mid-2008 (related in part to defaulting home loans), commodity prices of all types dropped.

Figure 6. Inflation adjusted prices adjusted to 1999 price = 100, based on World Bank

Prices then began to rise once Quantitative Easing (QE) was initiated (compare Figures 6 and 7). The use of QE brought down medium-term and long-term interest rates, making it easier for customers to afford homes and cars.

Figure 7. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

More recently, prices have fallen again. Thus, we have had two recent times when prices have fallen below the cost of production for many major commodities. Both of these drops occurred after prices had been high, when debt availability was contracting or failing to rise as much as in the past.

5. Part of the problem that we are experiencing is a slow-down in wage growth.

Figure 8 shows that in the United States, growth in per capita wages tends to disappear when oil prices rise above $40 barrel. (Of course, as noted in Point 1, interest rates have been falling since 1981. If it weren’t for this, the cut off for wage growth might even be lower–perhaps even $20 barrel!)

Figure 8. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

There is also a logical reason why we should expect that wages would tend to fall as energy costs rise. How does a manufacturer respond to the much higher cost of one or more of its major inputs? If the manufacturer simply passes the higher cost along, many customers will no longer be able to afford the manufacturer’s or service-provider’s products. If businesses can simply reduce some other costs to offset the rise in the cost in energy products and metals, they might be able to keep most of their customers.

A major area where a manufacturer or service provider can cut costs is in wage expense.  (Note the different types of expenses shown in Figure 5. Wages are a major type of expense for most businesses.)

There are several ways employment costs can be cut:

  1. Shift jobs to lower wage countries overseas.
  2. Use automation to shift some human labor to labor provided by electricity.
  3. Pay workers less. Use “contract workers” or “adjunct faculty” or “interns” who will settle for lower wages.

If a manufacturer decides to shift jobs to China or India, this has the additional advantage of cutting energy costs, since these countries use a lot of coal in their energy mix, and coal is an inexpensive fuel.

Figure 9. United States Percentage of Labor Force Employed, in by St. Louis Federal Reserve.

In fact, we see a drop in the US civilian labor force participation rate (Figure 9) starting at approximately the same time when energy costs and metal costs started to rise. Median inflation-adjusted wages have tended to fall as well in this period. Low wages can be a reason for dropping out of the labor force; it can become too expensive to commute to work and pay day care expenses out of meager wages.

Of course, if wages of workers are not growing and in many cases are actually shrinking, it becomes difficult to sell as many homes, cars, boats, and vacation cruises. These big-ticket items create a significant share of commodity “demand.” If workers are unable to purchase as many of these big-ticket items, demand tends to fall below the (now-inflated) cost of producing these big-ticket items, leading to the lower commodity prices we have seen recently.

6. We are headed in slow motion toward major defaults among commodity producers, including oil producers. 

Quite a few people imagine that if oil prices drop, or if other commodity prices drop, there will be an immediate impact on the output of goods and services.

Figure 10.

Instead, what happens is more of a time-lagged effect (Figure 11).

Figure 11.

Part of the difference lies in the futures markets; companies hold contracts that hold sale prices up for a time, but eventually (often, end of 2015) run out. Part of the difference lies in wells that have already been drilled that keep on producing. Part of the difference lies in the need for businesses to maintain cash flow at all costs, if the price problem is only for a short period. Thus, they will keep parts of the business operating if those parts produce positive cash flow on a going-forward basis, even if they are not profitable considering all costs.

With debt, the big concern is that the oil reserves being used as collateral for loans will drop in value, due to the lower price of oil in the world market. The collateral value of reserves works out to be something like (barrels of oil in reserves x some expected price).

As long as oil is being valued at $100 barrel, the value of the collateral stays close to what was assumed when the loan was taken out. The problem comes when low oil prices gradually work their way through the system and bring down the value of the collateral. This may take a year or more from the initial price drop, because prices are averaged over as much as 12 months, to provide stability to the calculation.

Once the value of the collateral drops below the value of the outstanding loan, the borrowers are in big trouble. They may need to sell some of the other assets they own, to help pay down the loan. Or, they may end up in bankruptcy. The borrowers certainly can’t borrow the additional money they need to keep increasing their production.

When bankruptcy occurs, many follow-on effects can be expected. The banks that made the loans may find themselves in financial difficulty. The oil company may lay off large numbers of workers. The former workers’ lack of wages may affect other businesses in the area, such as car dealerships. The value of homes in the area may drop, causing home mortgages to become “underwater.” All of these effects contribute to still lower demand for commodities of all kinds, including oil.

Because of the time lag problem, the bankruptcy problem is hard to reverse. Oil prices need to stay high for an extended period before lenders will be willing to lend to oil companies again. If it takes, say, five years for oil prices to get up to a level high enough to encourage drilling again, it may take seven years before lenders are willing to lend again.

7. Because many “baby boomers” are retiring now, we are at the beginning of a demographic crunch that has the tendency to push demand down further.

Many workers born in the late 1940s and in the 1950s are retiring now. These workers tend to reduce their own spending, and depend on government programs to pay most of their income. Thus, the retirement of these workers tends to drive up governmental costs at the same time it reduces demand for commodities of all kinds.

Someone needs to pay for the goods and services used by the retirees. Government retirement plans are rarely pre-funded, except with the government’s own debt. Because of this, higher pension payments by governments tend to lead to higher taxes. With higher taxes, workers have less money left to buy homes and cars. Even with pensions, the elderly are never a big market for homes and cars. The overall result is that demand for homes and cars tends to stagnate or decline, holding down the demand for commodities.

8. We are running short of options for fixing our low commodity price problem.

The ideal solution to our low commodity price problem would be to find substitutes that are cheap enough, and could increase in quantity rapidly enough, to power the economy to economic growth. “Cheap enough” would probably mean approximately $20 per barrel for a liquid oil substitute. The price would need to be correspondingly inexpensive for other energy products. Cheap and abundant energy products are needed because oil consumption and energy consumption are highly correlated. If prices are not low, consumers cannot afford them. The economy would react as it does to inefficiency. In other words, it would react as if too much of the output is going into intermediate products, and too little is actually acting to expand the economy.

Figure 12. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

These substitutes would also need to be non-polluting, so that pollution workarounds do not add to costs. These substitutes would need to work in existing vehicles and machinery, so that we do not have to deal with the high cost of transition to new equipment.

Clearly, none of the potential substitutes we are looking at today come anywhere close to meeting cost and scalability requirements. Wind and solar PV can only be built on top of our existing fossil fuel system. All evidence is that they raise total costs, adding to our “Increased Inefficiency” problem, rather than fixing it.

Other solutions to our current problems seem to be debt based. If we look at recent past history, the story seems to be something such as the following:

Besides adopting QE starting in 2008, governments also ramped up their spending (and debt) during the 2008-2011 period. This spending included road building, which increased the demand for commodities directly, and unemployment insurance payments, which indirectly increased the demand for commodities by giving jobless people money, which they used for food and transportation. China also ramped up its use of debt in the 2008-2009 period, building more factories and homes. The combination of QE, China’s debt, and government debt together brought oil prices back up by 2011, although not to as high a level as in 2008 (Figure 7).

More recently, governments have slowed their growth in spending (and debt), realizing that they are reaching maximum prudent debt levels. China has slowed its debt growth, as pollution from coal has become an increasing problem, and as the need for new homes and new factories has become saturated. Its debt ratios are also becoming very high.

QE continues to be used by some countries, but its benefit seems to be waning, as interest rates are already as low as they can go, and as central banks buy up an increasing share of debt that might be used for loan collateral. The credit generated by QE has allowed questionable investments since the required rate of return on investments funded by low interest rate debt is so low. Some of this debt simply recirculates within the financial system, propping up stock prices and land prices. Some of it has gone toward stock buy-backs. Virtually none of it has added to commodity demand.

What we really need is more high wage jobs. Unfortunately, these jobs need to be supported by the availability of large amounts of very inexpensive energy. It is the lack of inexpensive energy, to match the $20 per barrel oil and very cheap coal upon which the economy has been built that is causing our problems. We don’t really have a way to fix this.

9. It is doubtful that the prices of energy products and metals can be raised again without causing recession.

We are not talking about simply raising oil prices. If the economy is to grow again, demand for all commodities needs to rise to the point where it makes sense to extract more of them. We use both energy products and metals in making all kinds of goods and services. If the price of these products rises, the cost of making virtually any kind of goods or services rises.

Raising the cost of energy products and metals leads to the problem represented by Growing Inefficiency (Figure 4). As we saw in Point 5, wages tend to go down, rather than up, when other costs of production rise because manufacturers try to find ways to hold total costs down.

Lower wages and higher prices are a huge problem. This is why we are headed back into recession if prices rise enough to enable rising long-term production of commodities, including oil.