the lithium age

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The industrial sector is recognizing the market drive for alternatives to traditional non-renewable energy sources. Could this be the dawn of The Lithium Age?

The Lithium Age

The modern world is at a critical stage in its development, as climate changed has spurred a global charge to reduce carbon emissions. A key way to accomplish this is a transition from fossil fuels to new renewable sources of energy. The energy and transportation sectors are two of the main sources of the world’s carbon emissions, so it is these sectors that will be the main battleground for the emissions war. It could very well be a war of wills between monolithic fossil fuel corporations and proponents of decarbonization, a war fought on multiple fronts: the economic front, the environmental front, and the social front.

So, what could replace fossil fuels? Lithium.

The Economic Front

The market for lithium is developing at an unprecedented speed, the price of which has doubled from 2016 to 2018. While lithium batteries serve a general use in power storage for renewable grids, it is the use of lithium batteries in powering electric automobiles that is the real driving force behind the market demand. 

The race to secure a share of the lithium market, because of its potential for revenue, has become a source of new geopolitical tensions. The main source of the world’s lithium reserves is found in Chile’s Atacama salt flats; this is because the Atacama desert holds the world’s highest levels of solar radiation. So, whoever controls Atacama’s share of the lithium market, will likely control the majority of the global market. Chile could be the proverbial battle of Gettysburg in the broader lithium war.

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Source: Total Global Consumption of Lithium from 2008 to 2016, Image Courtesy of Statista.

The Environmental Front

On the environmental front, the battle is – quite obviously – for the reduction of carbon emissions. The extraction and processing of traditional non-renewable resources is claimed to be responsible for 90% of the world’s biodiversity loss and more than half of the world’s carbon emissions. 

However, while lithium holds major potential in reducing our world’s carbon emissions, lithium mining is not without its own environmental impacts. The lithium extraction process is water intensive, generating an approximate 500,000 gallons of water per metric-ton of lithium and generates contaminated water and soil; and even if the water usage problems were removed, the lithium evaporation pools used for extracting lithium from salt flats have the potential to leak toxic water into local water supplies.

In addition to this, lithium is not “famous” for its reclamation potential. Have you ever thrown out a lithium-ion computer battery away using the proper protocols? Now, imagine that on an industrial scale and you can begin to imagine the scope of the problem that the industrial sector is confronted with as the market grows. Lithium-ion batteries that have found their way into landfills have been known to decay, leak, and catch fire; the smoke from these fires is toxic and can generate respiratory problems. As the market drive for lithium batteries increases, so too is the demand for innovations in the lithium reclamation process; so the reclamation of lithium from discarded electronics is a booming market in and of itself.

 

The Social Front

The true power on the social front of the lithium war is held by consumers, not by the fossil fuel companies or even lithium innovators. A more environmentally and socially conscious public is – more and more – choosing electric automobiles over traditional combustion-engine automobiles. Consumer decisions have driven market demand not just for lithium, but for all raw materials used in the manufacturing of electric vehicles. So much so that by 2040, the IEA (The International Energy Agency) forecasts that demand for lithium will have increased 42 times relative to 2020 demand. The IEA also states meeting the Paris agreement’s climate targets would further drive the market for “critical minerals” used to produce clean energy technologies.

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US Electric Vehicle Sales & Market Share: 2008-2019. Image Courtesy of Statista.

Conclusion

The war for lithium market control has only just begun. Time will tell if lithium is the promised land of fossil fuel alternatives. However, if it’s not lithium, surely it will be a war for another resource – and for it,  a similar war with similar fronts.

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