We’ve said it before: lithium is the currency of the digital economy, the key battery ingredient that brings to life everything from smartphones to electric cars.
But the metal has begun this year with a 13-percent price spike and renewed fears of short- and long-term shortages, thanks to kinks ranging from China’s closing of processing plants for regular maintenance to the country’s pause for the Lunar New Year and Winter Olympics next month to chronic labor shortages in Australia.
Demand is estimated to be at least 300,000 tons this year, with 120 “megafactories” building EV batteries already operating or under construction, and another 80 planned by the end of this decade, according to data gathered by the Visual Capitalist website.
With at least a three-year lead time to bring a new mine into production, where will all that new lithium come from?
In part, it might come from two research projects just unveiled by Stanford University and startup British Lithium.
For what seems to be the first time, British Lithium has demonstrated a commercially viable way to extract lithium carbonate—the refined version of lithium that makes batteries work—from mica taken from granite.
Lepidolite, one of the mica family of minerals, is the mineral that most commonly includes lithium.
The company’s pilot project is producing five kilograms, or about 11 pounds, of lithium carbonate a day while final kinks are worked out of the process and scaling for commercial production is being planned.
British Lithium expects ultimately to produce 21,000 metric tons of the metal annually for the British vehicle industry that, the company says, will be making only electric vehicles by 2030.
Meanwhile, scientists at Stanford, working with colleagues at the U.S. energy department’s SLAC Accelerator Laboratory have figured out how to squeeze an extra 30 percent life from EV batteries on their last legs.
As they charge and discharge, lithium batteries form little isolated pockets of the metal that take part in creating a current. For practical purposes, those pockets are coffins of dead lithium.
The engineers found that if they added lithium metal at one electrode and dissolved some at the other, they could goose the isolated pockets and get them to inch, like worms, toward the battery’s anode, the terminal where current comes in.
The secret: they added a short, sharp discharging step just as the battery finishes charging, which brought the isolated nuggets of lithium back into action, slowing the battery’s degradation and lengthening its usable life by about a third.
TRENDPOST: Lithium’s availability will lag demand through at least 2025. However, around the middle of this decade, new mines, simple recycling, and innovations such as those from Stanford and British Lithium will begin to close the gap.
Reclaiming and reprocessing not only lithium, but also cobalt and a range of key minerals needed in batteries and electronics, will be a booming industry before this decade ends.