For some reason, with everyone jumping on the electric vehicle bandwagon, it's becoming really interesting to start comparing lithium to oil. Jerry Flint, in Forbes Magazine, just stated his fear that countries with lots of lithium would create their own OPEC, and thus keep the cost of electric vehicles artificially high.
Others fear that the world's lithium supplies will be quickly depleted and we will find ourselves in a whole new mess.
None of this makes any sense. So here are some reasons why we don't need to create a "strategic lithium reserve," and why, actually, the costs of lithium won't be driving up battery prices.
- Lithium is a trivial part of the cost of a lithium-ion battery. The expensive bits par are the mind-bendingly complicated cathodes and anodes that have to be created with extremely complicated chemistry, even nanotechnology. And this is not to mention the active cooling systems that have sent the price of the Volt and the Tesla higher than expected. Every Chevy Volt contains about $180 of lithium. The battery is estimated to cost more than $10,000.
- Lithium is not scarce. Currently Bolivia produces about half of the world's lithium but only because their supply is particularly easy to extract, and thus very cheap. But if Bolivia decided to start using their power to drive up prices, economically viable sources of lithium would be found in nearly every country in the world. At 5x the current price, it would be economically viable to extract lithium from seawater. Hopefully we won't have to worry about running out of seawater.
- Lithium is not used up inside of batteries. While oil is burned by cars, lithium just sits there and, unless the battery is destroyed in a crash, it will be recycled. It won't however, be recycled for economic reasons, because lithium is too cheap to justify the costs. It will be recycled for environmental reasons, but that doesn't mean the recycling companies (see our story on Toxco) won't be feeding the lithium back into the market.
- Once the battery is built, commodity costs cease to matter. With oil, we're all at the mercy of wildly fluctuating pump prices. With lithium, on the other hand, you've already got your battery and fluctuating costs of lithium won't affect you until you need a new car (or battery.)
- Advanced batteries use less lithium. The better these batteries get, the less lithium is needed per mile of travel. And as technologies get better and more batteries are made, battery prices will drop much faster than increasing lithium costs ever could.
Lithium is literally nothing like oil. I'd say it's apples to oranges, but at least they're both fruits. It's more like comparing apples to underwear. Lithium prices will go up, but battery prices will drop much faster (and likely use less lithium) due to economies of scale and technological advancements.
In short, lithium supplies are the last thing we should be worrying about.