Range Assessment of Current Lithium Reserves

1 Abstract

Bild_Lithiumabbau_300In this project the range of current Lithium reserves in the light of an increased use in traction batteries for electric vehicles is investigated. For this purpose, first the basic factors of the reserve or resource estimates are compared and harmonized. This availability is then compared with the future needs, resulting from the use of electric mobility (EM). The needs assessment is based on two scenarios which reflect the range of possible development. Here, essential factors such as the average battery capacity, the specific Lithium content, the number of electric vehicles, etc. are varied dynamically.

2 General Context and Objectives

Based on the current debate about the possible shortage of Lithium resources, in the following, the availability of Lithium will be discussed. For this purpose, various scenarios for the development of the needs are defined and compared with research data regarding the Lithium reserves and resources.

Lithium batteries are characterized by a very high specific energy density and are therefore preferred for applications that require a combination of low weight, low space and high energy needs. Already now, Lithium batteries are the first-choice storage medium in information and communication technology for devices such as digital cameras, laptops, mobile phones, etc.

Because of the characteristics mentioned above, batteries based on Lithium appear as the most promising solution for the storage of energy in hybrid and electric vehicles. Therefore, in the National Development Plan for Electric Mobility /NEE 2009/ the German Federal Government has inter alia determined concrete ideas about the milestones in the development of electric mobility (1 million electric or hybrid vehicles by 2020 and about 5 million by 2030). In the year 2050, urban areas are to be largely free from internal-combustion-powered vehicles.

This trend can also be seen internationally. Therefore, almost all major automobile manufacturers are currently engaged in the possibilities for the electrification of road transport. Since Lithium batteries are presently considered as cornerstone in pioneering electric mobility (EM), the question of their long-term availability is justified.

3 Results

3.1 Current Situation

Lithium occurs in nature either as solid element bound in minerals such as spodumene and lepidolite, or dissolved in salt lakes. Because of its high reactivity, it occurs in any case only in the form of chemical compounds. The Lithium concentration of the different occurrences differs significantly (cf. /MGK 2004/). The Lithium content of minerals can be up to 9 %, whereas salt lakes in comparison only have about 1 %. Lithium may also be found in oceans; here, the concentration is only at about 0.17 ppm, which is why the cost effectiveness of the production is at present not feasible (/CHM 09/).

Currently, Lithium production takes place in only few countries. The outstanding producers in 2008 were Chile, with about 12,000 tonnes and Australia, which has a current annual mining capacity of 7,000 tonnes. Together, they showed almost 70 % of the worldwide capacity during the two years considered. Altogether, the production volume in 2008 stood at over 27,000 tonnes.

The Lithium presently mined is used in a variety of applications or production processes. Figure 1 shows the percentage distribution of Lithium in these different areas. The battery production has currently the largest relative share of the individual applications with about 27 %. In absolute terms, an amount of about 7,400 tonnes was spent for the battery production in 2008. The Lithium batteries are now mainly used in portable electric appliances.


Figure 1:  Application fields of Lithium /COC 09/

In some of the listed applications, it is possible to replace Lithium by other substances. These applications include the production of lubricants, glass, ceramics, and aluminum. For the substitution of Lithium in lubricants, calcium as well as aluminum is possible (cf. /USG 09/).

3.2 Availability Assessment

Numerous institutes and scientists have for years been concerned with estimates of global Lithium reserves. The following examples will address the four major propositions on this subject (cf. table 1). These include the publications of the U.S. Geological Surveys (USGS) /USG 09/, of Meridian International Research (MIR) /MIR 08/ and of Evans /EVS 08/ and Roskill /ROS 09/. It is important to note that the estimated values by Evans and MIR are described as “resources”.

Table 1: Reserve or range assessment


Since for the previous statements, both the quality of the deposit or mining sites as well as their absolute numbers have to be assessed, the occurrence in the individual countries covers a substantial range. In their propositions, the USGS and MIR show limitations concerning the mining countries and the accessible reserves. These reserves are, nevertheless, already partly used today, and their attractiveness will increase further in the future due to the progressing development of mining technology. For this reason, the values of Evans will be used for the following range assessment. However, these values will be considered only up to a level of 60 %, the reduction being made in order to be able to neglect non-minable and non-economical sources also in the future. These approximately 17 million tonnes are in the range of the resource estimates of MIR. As these 17 million tonnes cannot be fully exploited for a use in EM, two additional upfront estimates will be used for the Lithium needs of auxiliary consumers. From /ISI 09/, an auxiliary consumption for Lithium of about 5 million tonnes (eg. glass and ceramic production, aluminum production, batteries etc.) until 2100 can be derived. In addition, a slightly higher auxiliary consumption of 8.5 million tonnes will be assumed. This leads to Lithium amounts of about 12 million tonnes or 8.5 million tonnes in the scenario assumption.

3.3 Scenario Assumption

The optimistic scenario assumes a rapid penetration of electric mobility and a correspondingly good development of the battery and recycling technology. In the pessimistic scenario, a much slower and lower penetration of electric vehicles as well as a sluggish development in the field of batteries and recycling is assumed. In this assessment, the following parameters of influence are varied dynamically over the observation time:

  • Recycling rate
  • Average Lithium needs per battery
  • Number of vehicles powered by an electric motor (EV, HEV, PHEV, REV)
  • Average battery capacity
  • Proportion of Lithium batteries in relation to the total number of batteries

This results in the development of the number of electric vehicles and the corresponding Lithium requirement of the two scenarios shown in figure 2. The two green curves describe the possible run of electric or hybrid vehicles, while the two blue curves show the corresponding cumulative Lithium demand in million tonnes. In the optimistic scenario, the number of vehicles with electric motors rises to almost 3 billion until the year 2100; in the pessimistic scenario, a number of about 1.2 billion is reached. The corresponding Lithium demand is around 10 million tonnes or just over 3 million tonnes respectively.


Figure 2: Dynamic range calculation

A comparison with the availability assessment according to chapter 3.2 shows that the high availability would be sufficient far beyond the year 2100 even in case of an optimistic development of electric mobility. With a low availability of Lithium, the reserves would, in contrast, be consumed around the year 2080 in the optimistic scenario. The pessimistic scenario would not reach the limits of Lithium reserves in the period under review.

4 Conclusion

Because of the discrepancy within the data, and the limited experience in terms of acceptance and the possible penetration of electric mobility, statements about the range of Lithium are very difficult. The assumed scenarios shall therefore show a possible trend as well as a framework for the Lithium demand. The scenarios show that a range of at least 100 years is realistic. The limiting factor here might not be the total reserves, but the annual capacity of the production facilities. A lack of production capacities could be restrictive on all electric mobility or the application of Lithium batteries exclusively. In the second case, other battery technologies would possibly be used, not hindering the progress of electric vehicles substantially. The scenarios show that the implementation of a comprehensive and efficient recycling infrastructure for Lithium batteries is essential. Currently, the recovery of Lithium from batteries is carried out only in a few plants; however, there are numerous efforts (e.g. in the USA and Germany) to develop and build pilot plants. The general rule is that the dependency on only one battery technology is neither expedient nor desirable. For this reason, it makes sense to further promote the development of alternative storage technologies (such as NiMH, NaNiCl2), which indeed have potential for improvement.

5 Literature

EVS 08 Evans, R. K.; An Abundance of Lithium; 2008
ISI 09 Angerer, G.,Marscheider-Weidemann, F., Wendl, M., Wietschel, M.; Lithium für Zukunftstechnologien; Fraunhofer ISI; 2009
MIR 08 Meridian International Research; The Trouble with Lithium 2; Meridian International Research; 2008
NEE 09 Bundesregierung; Nationaler Entwicklungsplan Elektromobilität der Bundesregierung; 2009
RMI 08 Anderson, D.; Status and Trends in the HEV/PHEV/EV Battery Industry;Rocky Mountain Institute; 2008
ROS 09 Roskill Information Services Ltd.; The Economics of Lithium; 2009
USG 09 U.S. Geological Survey; Mineral Commodity Summary 2009; USGS; 2009; URL: http://www.minerals.usgs.gov (Stand 15.03.2009)

Cookies make it easier for us to provide you with our services. With the usage of our services you permit us to use cookies.
To learn more about our data privacy commitment, please refer to our Privacy Policy.