Rare metals expert predicts North American shortage of lithium for EVs 

Automakers are seeking more involvement in the riskier parts of their supply chains. (Image from Tesla)

The amount of lithium being produced in North America will not be enough to meet the growing demand for electrical vehicles, but the problem could be alleviated through recycling, a renowned authority on specialty metals said in a recent teaser video for his upcoming presentation at the Mines and Money show in Toronto.

Jack Lifton, senior editor for InvestorIntel Corp. and a consultant, author, and lecturer on technology metals such as cobalt, lithium and graphite, says he is perplexed as to why, when lithium-ion batteries have reached end of life, more are not recycled instead of landfilled. According to an article written by Palladium Energy, the U.S. EPA considers lithium-ion batteries “safe” for disposal in contrast to nickel-cadmium and lead-based battery products.

“We don’t produce enough lithium, cobalt or spherical graphite in North America to make even a fraction of the vehicles Mr. Musk tells us he’s going to be making by 2018”

The article notes the low economic gains to be made from lithium battery recycling, with the scrap value of lithium at least one-tenth of the value of lead.

Another article by Waste Management World acknowledges that electrical vehicle-makers would like to re-use lithium from recycled batteries, but contends that:

[It] does not make any economic sense to recycle the batteries. Batteries contain only a small fraction of lithium carbonate as a percent of weight and are inexpensive compared to cobalt or nickel. The average lithium cost associated with Li-ion battery production is less than 3% of the production cost. Intrinsic value for the Li-ion recycling business currently comes from the valuable metals such as cobalt and nickel that are more highly priced than lithium. Due to less demand for lithium and low prices, almost none of the lithium used in consumer batteries is completely recycled.

However according to Lifton, using more recycled lithium could help to alleviate what he believes is a growing continental shortage of lithium for electric vehicles:

“We don’t produce enough lithium, cobalt or spherical graphite in North America to make even a fraction of the vehicles Mr. Musk tells us he’s going to be making by 2018,” he says in the Skype interview. “I’ve got big news for everybody watching: There are at least 20 or 25 direct-electrically powered and hybrids coming onto the market in the next five or six years. They’re coming from Europe, the US, Japan, China and Korea.”

Lifton says many in the industry are aware of the problem, but “Nobody’s doing anything they’re just talking about it.” He says recycling the batteries would not only conserve the metal that goes into the batteries, but the energy that goes into producing the vehicles, in the same way that the steel industry uses recycled steel as an input because it takes less energy than iron ore and coal to produce steel.

About 70 percent of the world’s lithium deposits are concentrated in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The U.S. currently imports over 80% of the lithium it uses.

Tesla officials on Thursday said the company’s Gigafactory under construction east of Las Vegas is expected to begin producing lithium-ion batteries late this year for the electric car maker’s Model 3, Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

Japan and South Korea have both recorded record high levels of lithium-ion battery exports in H1 2016, as auto companies ramp up battery consumption to power new all-electric offerings, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence said a month ago. Lithium-ion battery shipments from Japan – the world’s leading producer – topped 33,500 tonnes in H1, up 17% from the second half of 2015 and over 31% year on year.