Monday, 20 June 2011

Does lithium have an uncertain future?

According to the US Geological Survey, lithium battery production in 2008 represented 70% of the total rechargeable battery market, and the use of lithium for batteries has been increasing by more than 20% per year.

The use of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles could see further significant increases in lithium production. Forecasts indicate that the demand for lithium in the next five years is expected to increase by approximately 60% from 102,000t to 162,00t of lithium carbonate or equivalent, with batteries representing more than 40,000t of the perceived growth (as reported by Siame and Pascoe at SRCR ’11).

So the future looks good for lithium. Or does it?

I have always thought that politicians adopt green policies with little real thought, or scientific backing. (see posting of 10th May). In 2010 world CO2 emissions increased by nearly 6%, China contributing 25% and the USA 13%. The UK contributes only about 2%, yet the Energy & Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, has committed to a target of 30% of electricity generation from renewables (currently 7%), mainly via inefficient wind power, and of course, electric cars. The Committee on Climate Change, the government watchdog, has called for an increase in electric cars on Britain’s roads from the current few hundred to 1.7 million by 2020, and the Department of Transport is spending £43 miliion over the next year, giving grants of £5000 to buyers of such cars.

However, a study by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LCVP), jointly funded by the government and the car industry, has found that electric cars could produce higher emissions over their lifetimes than petrol equivalents, because of the energy consumed in making their batteries (Ben Webster, The Times, 10th June 2011). The study showed that an electric car would have to travel at least 80,000 miles before producing a net saving in CO2. Even those travelling 100,000 miles would save only about a tonne of CO2 over their lifetimes.

Emissions from manufacturing electric cars are at least 50% higher than with conventional cars, as the batteries are made from lithium, copper and refined silicon, which require a great deal of energy to process. Many electric cars will need a second battery in their lifetime, and once the emissions from producing this are added, the total CO2 from producing an electric car rises to 12.6 tonnes, compared with 5.6 tonnes for a petrol car. The study also took into account carbon emitted in generating the grid electricity consumed.

Greg Archer, the director of LCVP stated that the industry should state the full lifecycle emissions of cars, rather than just tailpipe emissions, to avoid misleading consumers. He concluded that drivers wanting to reduce emissions could be better off buying a small, efficient petrol or diesel car.

Food for thought for SRCR ’13.


  1. An interesting article in IOM3 supports the argument against electric cars:

  2. And more evidence against electric cars in BBC News


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