Lithium Supplies – Locked and Loaded

While some have asked where we’re going to get Lithium for the next generation of Lithium-Ion batteries for cars, others are actually mining for Lithium. Western Lithium of Canada (WLC) has announced their Kings Valley Nevada site has twice the amount of Lithium in their stage II lens as previously expected.

WLC, in a recent press release, also stated that their target for their stage I lens production is 27,700 metric tonnes per year of Lithium Carbonate (LCE, or chemically Li2CO3). The math to turn that into the number of EVs is easy – 27,700 metric tonnes is 27,700,000 kg of LCE. In 1kWh of a Lithium-Ion battery there is about 0.9kg of LCE. This means that 27.7M kg of LCE per year is about 30.8M kWh of batteries that can be produced. They have an expected 18 years at this rate of supply to mine (approximately 500,000 metric tonnes LCE total).

In a pure EV (like the Nissan Leaf) the battery is 24kWh, so from 27,700 tonnes of LCE comes 1.28M Nissan Leaf battery packs per year. In a EREV like the Chevy Volt, its battery pack is 16kWh, so 1.9M battery packs would be able to be manufactured for the Volt.

To put these numbers in perspective, in 2009 there were a total of 10.4M cars sold in the US, and in 2008 approximately 13M cars sold. So this single lithium mine could power up to 15% of all the US EVs and EREVs sold, if the automakers could build and sell that many (which they wont, at least initially).

So the question is, how many tonnes of LCE would it take to make every car sold in America a plug-in? From a small two-mode system that would allow for 8-12kWh batteries for 10-15 miles at speeds below 60MPH, all the way up to pure EVs with 50kWh batteries. If we assume that 70% of cars sold are two-mode at 10kW, 20% are EREV (18kWh) and the last 10% are pure EVs (35kWh avg), the total kWh for a year of 14M cars is 197.4M kWh, or 177.3M kg of LCE. So in order to produce enough LCE, we would need to produce about 180,000 metric tonnes of LCE, or about 6.5x the amount of stage I.

The stage II lens has approximately 1.365M tonnes of LCE, and at 180,000 metric tonnes per year, it would be exhausted after 7.5 years, assuming the production rate could be sustained.

Seven and a half years might not be a long time, however there are still several other stages to this mine area (stages three and four), plus there are other lithium mines in the Nevada and the US. It appears that Lithium supplies wont be a blockade on the road to electric cars. While Li-Ion batteries can also contain other precious metals that might be scarce, Lithium shouldn’t be an issue.

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