The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is a major one for the auto industry and many analysts are concerned that we do not have enough of the necessary materials for it to be successful. This includes lithium, which is one of the most essential components of EVs. According to an assessment by the International Energy Agency (IEA), we may face lithium shortages by 2025 “unless sufficient investments are made to expand production.”
While this is a concern for many, other analysts feel the industry is on the right track and have plenty of the required resources. Overall, the answer to whether or not we have enough lithium is, of course, complex.
A 2022 release from the U.S. Department of the Interior indicated that global lithium reserves hold around 22 million tons of the mineral while actual production of lithium totaled 100,000 tons for the year. This, the department said, was enough to produce 11.4 million EV batteries. The IEA noted that to be completely carbon neutral by 2050, we would need around two billion EVs in existence. This statistic alone demonstrates the dire need for superb lithium production and preservation procedures; otherwise, the net zero emissions goal may be missed.
A major factor that will contribute to the overall longevity of our lithium supply is the amount of recycling that is carried out. While supply levels are sufficient for now, without recycling batteries and other car parts at the end of their lifespans, the industry may face vast shortages in the coming decades.
Recycling EV parts, in theory, should be easier than the arduous process of mining new lithium. However, EV batteries are currently extremely complicated and it is oftentimes more expensive to recycle them instead of mining new materials. Current EV batteries on the market differ greatly, and recycling them typically requires extensive processes such as pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, which each has its pros and cons. Unfortunately, these techniques and similar ones are costly and have been shown to create a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions, thus reducing the environmental-friendliness of EVs.
Concerned analysts often say that legal regulations should be put into place regarding EV battery recycling. For now, the recycling of EV batteries in the United States is primarily done for profit or for research purposes and there are currently no laws mandating it. Many analysts feel that some sort of rules should be implemented to require recycling, whether it be at a state or federal level. Some states such as California have already begun discussing the matter and are expected to eventually put some sort of regulations in place.
While EV recycling techniques need improvement, it is also important to note that battery makers should also start devising ways to develop batteries up front that are easier and less expensive to mine and recycle. Mining lithium is a very intensive process and typically requires a significant amount of water, which is a limited resource in many areas. Most of the Earth’s produced lithium currently comes from four countries – Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina – but countries such as the U.S. have the resources and just need to find ways to mine it. In addition, battery makers will need to begin developing easy-to-recycle batteries instead of batteries that require the labor-intensive recycling procedures in place now.
Transporting EV battery materials is also hazardous and can be costly, meaning finding the best places for recycling facilities will also be critical. Large countries like the U.S. will need to determine prime locations for these facilities that reduce risks and costs.
Ultimately, there is arguably the potential for a lithium shortage, but if the auto industry quickly devises adequate procedures to mine and recycle EV batteries, it can be avoided. Improving current mining and recycling procedures while also discovering new, more efficient, and less dangerous ones will be critical for the overall adoption of EVs.