Ilargi: But….Then There’s the [Lithium] Math

Yves here. Now that Trump era cray cray is receding a bit, we’re now able to spend time on secondary matters like the future of the planet. One topic that is weirdly mentioned more than occasionally yet then treated as if it simply doesn’t exist is the high environmental cost of supposedly green clean technologies. This post highlights a specific issue: there simply isn’t enough lithium to supply Tesla’s planned electric vehicles, let alone those of other car makers.

EV defenders will argue other battery technologies are just around the corner, like sodium ion, which promises to be more efficient as well as environmentally less taxing. See here for a recap of the status and advantages of other battery technologies under development.

The wee problem is that the time it takes to perfect and test a new technology to the degree that it’s ready for industrial implementation is often longer than its boosters would like to believe. So reader input on what next gen battery technologies might be ready for prime time when would be very much appreciated.

By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor of Automatic Earth. Originally published at Automatic Earth

Dr. D posted this as a short comment, not an article, and he’s welcome, encouraged even, to expand on it at a later date. But I think it’s important enough, and detailed enough, to in fact make it an article. We can take if from here. The blind drive towards EV’s is going to hurt, and we should prepare for that.

The idea, and the concept, that we can simply switch from one energy source to another and keep motoring and do all the other things we do, is nothing but a cheap and meaningless sales pitch. To produce 20 million Tesla’s would require 165% of the entire 2019 global lithium production, says this chart from

That’s just Tesla, that doesn’t yet include the entire rest of the world’s car manufacturers who also claim they’ll go “green”. But then we’ll just raise the production of lithium! Well, there may be a problem with that…

Wouldn’t it be hilarious if “green” cars in the end prove to be more polluting than “dirty” cars?


Dr. D: More math, like garlic and holy water, keeps the riff raff away.

One solution to Texas’ problem is to have long-term storage that the grid refuses to buy and install. But you can! For only $10,000, 5-10x the cost of yesterday’s generator, you can own a brand new Tesla Powerwall. That maybe MIGHT not catch on fire like all their cars and solar panels have. With it, you can have 13kw of power, and that’s not joking: an American house uses 1kw a day, so that’s almost two weeks of power. For $10,000, and a little house fire.

There are 3M Texans without power, so say 1M households, not sure how they account it or how carefully. 1M Powerwalls, and their NOT drawing on the grid would help the rest of Texas households too! For only $10 BILLION dollars. (And a 10-year lifespan). Chicken feed these days.

Cool. He’s building a factory there, we’ll buy one today. You know, with that extra $10k most American families have hanging around.

But…then there’s math. At 200lbs/pc 1 Million Powerwalls would need 200 MILLION pounds of lithium or 100,000 tons. (90,718 Metric Tonnes)

Oh wait: that’s more Lithium than is mined in WHOLE CONTINENTS, like top producer Australia @ 42,000 tonnes. Next is Chile, 18,000 tonnes.

I detect a problem.

More problems follow. Lithium is both unbelievably reactive and unbelievably toxic. It catches on fire in water — not like there’s any “water” where humans live, and as lithium is a major ingredient in psychology drugs, causing mood leveling or even erasing emotions altogether, and doesn’t decay, even a small amount of escaped lithium is a big deal. That’s both in the Pecos and Red River, AND at the mining site, where it consumes tens of thousands of gallons in the world’s driest environments, like Bolivia.

The Environmental Impact of Lithium Batteries

“Lithium extraction harms the soil and causes air contamination. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, residents believe that lithium operations contaminated streams used by humans and livestock and for crop irrigation. In Chile, the landscape is marred by mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water with an unnatural blue hue.

… In Australia, only two percent of the country’s 3,300 metric tons of lithium-ion waste is recycled.

… recovered cells are usually shredded, creating a mixture of metal that can then be separated using pyrometallurgical techniques—burning—which wastes a lot of the lithium.”

Two other key ingredients, cobalt and nickel, are more in danger of creating a bottleneck in the move towards electric vehicles, and at a potentially huge environmental cost. Cobalt is found in huge quantities right across the Democratic Republic of Congo and central Africa, and hardly anywhere else. The price has quadrupled in the last two years.

Unlike most metals, which are not toxic when they’re pulled from the ground as metal ores, cobalt is “uniquely terrible,” according to Gleb Yushin, chief technical officer and founder of battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies.”

Not done yet, where one solution to one 7-day crisis takes more lithium than is mined? Then polluted? Then not recycled? Then as not recycled, permanently escapes into your water supply?

There’s still this: it takes 60kw to produce 1kw of lithium battery capacity. Now it’s reusable, so there are many, many cycles in a battery, but your 13 Million Kwh are going to need 78M Kwh to create, just for the battery side, or 78,000 megawatts.

Are you sure you wouldn’t rather – say it with me now:

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”? You know, by reducing, reusing, economizing, using less, and creating only things that last longer?

Nope. If I DON’T buy a Powerwall, who profits? No subsidy, no GDP, no sales tax, no Wall Street IPO. No 18 weeks’ work at $20/hr, tied up to Jamie Dimon and Uncle Sam to buy it.

Thoreau said he could walk to Boston on foot quicker than he could get the money to take the train there. Is chopping fallen wood and sitting on a rammed clay floor next to your small wood stove REALLY that bad? That’s 18 weeks you can stay home and read Cicero – from a real-to-god, paper book — with your children. Or not. Don’t, end up in the dark and curse: “I cry to you, O God, but you don’t answer. I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” What do you think he’s going to do for you that you’re not doing for yourself?

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  1. Samuel Conner

    A small “units” comment: I think that some of the kW mentions should be kWh.


    I wonder whether NiMH technology could provide a “bridge” for widespread EV use. As the power density is about half that of Li ion, it would entail reduced range for the same vehicle weight, but me thinks for many commuter applications this would not be a major obstacle. Nickel is less supply constrained than Lithium. The batteries might have longer lifetimes (my brand-name NiMH AA cells claim to be rechargable 1000+ times) and are less fire-prone.

    Just wondering.

    1. JE

      1kWh per day?!!!! That will run your fridge only for a day. As someone with extensive solar, power optimization and measurement experience I can tell you that after much work to track down vampire draws and switching appliances and bulbs and everything I could find to the lowest draw, my house draws 0.5A at 240VAC when “off” due to various transformers, wall warts, HVAC monitoring, WiFi routers, etc. So in that situation, a power wall would keep us rolling for 108 hours (13000W/120W). Add in the fridge and were talking 76 hours or so. Every light, fan, TV or other draw will drop that further.

      The TX situation was heating, so if you needed 1kW (avg) of added heat to keep your house above freezing the power wall would have lasted for 13 hours. Totally useless.

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        Most heat pumps pull 3kW when running. If it gets cold enough (which definitely happened in Texas), they cease to operate effectively and the “emergency heat” resistor element kicks in. These normally pull 15 kW. Doing this with a single Powerwall 2 unit for a full week? That would be a hard NO.

      2. russell1200

        Yes, 1kWh isn’t a lot. The numbers I see have household usage pretty close to 30kWh per day. Obviously a lot will depend on use of electrical heating in the winter months.

        In the case of the refrigerator, it would be helped if they were put it outside to reduce (or eliminate) the delta T.

        But electric heat is a killer. If you use a space heater for 5 hours/day to heat one room in the house, your looking at (1500kwx5/1000) 7.5kWh. All of the sudden your 13kWh battery isn’t looking so huge.

        The general idea is that Tesla’s battery is powered by solar pv panels, and an emergency generator is powered by natural gas or propane.

        1. barefoot charley

          All so true. DeGrowth used to harmonize with off-grid living, where before you bought your solar panels, you calculated your energy uses, them reduced them with detailed analysis. (Because panels were expensive!) Our very comfortable off-grid home uses about a tenth of the American average of 30kWh per day. But we have to be conscious of running the dishwasher only in sunlight, not vacuuming while washing clothes, etc. Ruinous global (Chinese) competition has made solar panels so cheap, new off-gridders haven’t even heard of those forced virtues of the past. We still demand unlimited magical electricity production to enable our conservation lifestyles. We are idi*ts. Electrons aren’t magic.

        2. Ook

          Real world example.
          I have a 1000 sq ft house (Texas average being 2400 sq ft), and I live where average temps have ranged from 0 to 10 celsius (32 to about 50 F) the last month.
          I work at home, but only heat the room I am in, with a very new highly economical heat unit. I sleep with the heater off. All my lighting is LED. I have a new ecological fridge. I only use one PC at a time, normally a Lenovo laptop and a 23″ monitor.
          I use gas for cooking, hot water, and to heat the living room/kitchen.
          Last month I used 432 kWh of electricity, or about 14.4 kWh per day.

          Even in late summer, when I used no air-con and no heat, and worked from the office, that was 40 kWh.

          1. Patrick

            I’m looking for a room heater – Might you identify the “very new highly economical heat unit” used in your workroom?
            Thank you

            1. Boatwright

              Don’t waste your money on an expensive electric space heater.

              Facts: A watt is a watt. A 1000 watt space heater, whether it costs $300 or $25, produces exactly the same amount of heat. The only functional difference is how noisy the fan is. EdenPure’s heaters are a perfect example of misleading marketing hype.

              1. James Simpson

                Yes. There are no “highly economical heaters”, nor will there ever be. I simple electric fire using a bar is as eco as you’ll get. And a lot cheaper to buy than fancy gadgets for naïve Greens.

        3. Rodeo Clownfish

          I live off grid, and my house typically uses 10-12 kWh/day, and that includes a modicum of water heating (~4 kWh) to supplement solar water heating. No vampire draws. In the night, after lights out, the draw is only the energy star fridge at 100-150 Watts. But then, I do live in the tropics. No heating or cooling of the with electricity.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I hate to say it, but are you kidding?

      I looked at advanced battery technologies in 1993 for electric cars. I even drove one, the GM EV-1 prototype. NiMH was sort of a candidate but ultimately rejected for the same reason it’s not longer used for cell phones: memory effect. You need to drain a NiMH battery totally or it will only partly charge. So if you use it down to a 20% remaining charge, you’ll only have 80% battery capacity from that point forward.

      Second is NiMH batteries are large and heavy relative to their energy output.

      1. Rodeo Clownfish

        I think that Zinc air batteries are reaching market entry status and are for non-mobile (aka grid, business, residential) applications. Check out Zinc8. Also, flow batteries are good for stationary use, but current ingredients are hazardous, like the acid in vanadium flow batteries or the bromine (Br2) in Redflows zinc-bromine Z-cell flow batteries.

        If lithium was only for cars and light electronics, and other solutions are found for stationary battery tech, how does that impact the math on scarcity and cost?

    1. solar jay

      Power is an instantaneous amount, its a rate.
      Energy is a quantity of how much you used.

      Your 60 watt light bulb uses 60 watts. If on for 1 hour is 60 Wh or .06kWh

  2. Skip Intro

    Powerwalls are particularly stupid from an engineering point of view, but logical for a business hoping to grow the market for their batteries. Fixed batteries have no need for light lithium, and can be constructed from safer, cheaper materials.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Yep. “With it, you can have 13kw of power, and that’s not joking: an American house uses 1kw a day, so that’s almost two weeks of power.

      There is a severe power-vs-energy units issue with this statement. For “average” power consumption of 1 kW, the 13.5 kWh Powerwall 2 could provide said power for 13.5 hours. You’d need 13 of them to make it through the week.

      If you consume 2 kW on overage, you’d need 25 of them. And if you’re enduring a Texas-style week of extreme cold and the 15 kW resistor heater that serves as “emergency heat” backup for your heat pump is running the entire time, you’d need 187 Powerwall 2 units to make it through the week. This isn’t a realistic solution.

      1. Synoia

        Need a power wall fence around your property. However, the next step would be Power walll Femce thieves.

        A better approach might be a neighborhood wind turbine and solar roof on every house, with every house super insulated.

        Starting with the insulation.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          I definitely agree on the insulation aspect. Weatherizing America’s housing stock would substantially reduce our need for energy. It ought to be priority #1 in any sort of “green energy” deal.

          I’m a little more dubious on the wind and solar. Wind turbines provide the highest capacity factors and smoothest power when they’re really big. Smaller “neighborhood-scale” (or worse yet, “household-scale”) turbines would be less effective. And of course, if the wind isn’t blowing, none of them work will at all.

          And solar? Well, it’s worth noting that most of Texas got 6 inches of snow during this extreme weather event. Solar panels buried under 6 inches of snow generate zero power. People would have to climb up on their rooftops in the middle of a blizzard to sweep it off. No thanks.

          1. aleric

            Solar panels generate enough heat to melt snow and ice so that it slides right off, even at Minnesota temps. No cleaning necessary.

            1. Grumpy Engineer

              Solar panels don’t generate heat. If they did, they would be consuming power. Not producing it. There is a conservation-of-energy defect in your argument.

              Solar panels often run hotter than local ambient because they are dark in color. ~20% of the solar power they absorb heads out the line as electricity, but the rest is absorbed as heat. If your panels are partially covered by snow, the uncovered portions will absorb heat. This heat will thermally conduct to portions still covered and help melt it.

              But if the entire array is covered by snow thick enough to be fully opaque, none of this happens. The temperature of the panels will be exactly the same as the temperature of the snow on top.

                1. bob

                  Brilliant! We’ll just build this giant flame maker in the sky and let the rays of it hit the earth and then…

                  1. ObjectiveFunction

                    …Create steam to power a turbine in one of 2 ways:

                    1. focus a lot of curved metal reflectors to heat up a complex network of pipes with oil circulating in them that conducts heat to heat exchangers and creates steam

                    2. or use acres of mirrors to focus sunlight on boiling a large kettle mounted on a tall tower.

                    Note that turning sunlight into steam also produces some RE power in the sunset peak hours, unlike PV which is ‘use or lose’ if not otherwise stored.

                    Both work, just not very efficiently in terms of land coverage and materials use and cost when compared to PV at today’s prices.

                    Also, I endorse the comment above re the cost competitiveness of PV being mainly (not entirely though) an artifact of the Chinese subsidizing giant manufacturing scales to drive everyone else (most lately Panasonic) out of the business.

                    They’re basically dumping, but nobody will call it that because the Green PE set is busy cashing in yugely on the renewables transition (and also congratulating themselves on saving the planet and Our Way of Life). Their models don’t deliver the ‘required’ >20-30% returns without ultra cheap panels.

                    (Let the pension funds and lenders they’ve sold it on figure out what to do when half the inverters fail over 10 years etc.).

              1. bob

                Driving around upstate NY, with lots of snow and lots of new solar farms this winter. No one is clearing the snow from the solar farms. There is a thick cover of snow, which then changed eventually to ice, with more snow added to it over time.

                They can spend millions building these farms, but can’t hire anyone to clear the snow from them. This probably points to other problems within the subsidy and/or government regulations regime.

        2. James Simpson

          Every house (we don’t want to live communally, cos that’s communist) super insulated? What materials would that use, and what effects on the world would they have?

  3. TimH

    The catch with the useful ways to manage (generate and store) electricity and (hot) water is they are horrible to retrofit to a single family home, essentially impossible in higher density housing.

    I’d start with a ±24V bus (so 48VDC across both) bus around the house to power lighting and computers from the lower voltage, appliances from the higher. But the appliances don’t exist, and need interaction so they only draw one at a time. And again… new, richer people’s housing only, so TAM is small and so difficult beesknees case.

  4. JE

    This scale up problem is a huge issue, but my particular concern is connected to the Nickel in the chart above. Nickel is already being used as fast as it can be mined and one of the “best” potential sources for mining another 30% of Ni is in the sulfide ores of Northern Minnesota represented by the “Twin Metals” proposed project. This is scant miles and in hearing of my family cabin on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. NIMBY! :) My fear is as this whole thing shakes out, we’re going to sacrifice environmental protection and wilderness the world over in a mad rush to keep the wheels on the status quo. And the cobalt? Forget it. Nothing beats the stored sunshine of fossil fuels. Nothing. Until we get real and change the way we live, we’re doomed. Passive houses, no personal vehicles. We’re going to get there one way or another, the question is will it be 8 Billion people living in an enlightened and low impact way or 500 Million living in caves?

    1. James Simpson

      Exactly right There are just so many Green technophiles debating the relative merits of various technologies while ignoring the basic principle. Why did we abandon wind energy in the 19th century? Coal, then oil, has vastly greater energy density than any other means of liberating energy. Nothing comes close. We in the wealthy nations can’t keep on living like this, yet few Greens want to admit it; even the degrowthers are reluctant to come clean about the implications.

  5. Mikel

    Texas exposed the myriad electric grid infrastructure issues lying in wait all over the world and this article is giving much needed attention to the mining environmental disaster of this allegedly “green” idea.
    Don’t the EVs still use plastics (needing oil) too?

  6. PlutoniumKun

    This article is, to put it mildly, somewhat selective in its arguments. The fact that Ilargi says lithium is toxic… well, its not. Really, its not. Most of us have lithium batteries in our pockets or on our desks right now. If you chewed your phone battery then it certainly wouldn’t be very healthy, but that’s not a meaningful definition of ‘toxicity’. There are far more toxic things in your phone than the lithium, or scattered around your desk or in the clothes you are wearing. And yes, its flammable. So is oil. So is wood. So is flour. So is wool. That statement is meaningless without context.

    Lithium supply is crucial for electrifying out power systems, at least with current battery technology. However, Illargi fails to note the rather obvious point that lithium is being used for things like powerwalls and network storage precisely because lithium batteries are so cheap and plentiful. Lithium prices have hardly gone up the past few years despite rocketing demand precisely because we aren’t short of it. If and when the prices go up, then heavier batteries will become price competitive for non-mobile uses.

    If there is the type of liftoff in EV’s (which in reality means more than cars, it also means electric bikes, scooters, buses, trains, etc), then it is absolutely vital that we reduce the quantity of raw lithium needed, because while there is no short term crunch in lithium supplies, we will reach one by around 2050 under most scenarios. The source of that lithium in the longer term is obvious. Recycling. Extracting the lithium and other elements from used batteries is an established technology that is not widely used simply because there aren’t enough used batteries available yet. But pretty soon there will be as there has been a major ramping up in capacity worldwide.

    For those interested, there is a detailed set of scenarios for lithium demand and supply set out in this report. There is lots and lots of additional information in the references in that report. The report points out that a major crunch will hit around 2050 without recycling under most scenarios, but there are no economic or technological obstacles to recycling – in fact, the low current price of lithium is probably the main issue right now as its impeding investment.

    Mining lithium is of course polluting and damaging, but its actually significantly less polluting or damaging than most other major elements. Certainly a lot less than oil and gas extraction. It should be noted that the biggest potential source of lithium is in seawater. The main pollution from that will be the energy requirement. Again, context is needed, you have to compare all alternatives, including of course, reducing energy use.

    His point about the embodied energy in batteries is one often brought up. There are dozens of studies addressing this, easily found by google. Lithium batteries aren’t great, but aren’t terrible either compared to the alternatives. There is an overview report here pointing out the huge discrepancies between the studies and provides a comparison of the various options. Pretty much everything associated with modern life, including bicycles, home insulation material and shoe leather has embodied energy, lots of it. The embodied energy in batteries is only a question in the context of alternatives, and it measures up reasonably well to everything except, well, travelling less. And even travelling less can have energy implications (more wifi connections needed, for example)

    As for the other materials required for batteries, they are potentially a major problem in all sorts of ways, although projections for their use are dropping as industry gets better at using less. Actually, one big favour Tesla have done us is to work out how to make electric drivetrains using far less rare earths than anyone else, this is one way they’ve kept the prices down. Incidentally, contrary to what the quote says, Cobalt is not ‘uniquely terrible’. Probably the worst are Palladium, Yttrium and Rhodium, which you’ll find in your ICE cars catalytic converter and other engine components. Pretty much all the rare earths are a disaster environmentally, there is little we can do except rapidly develop ways of reducing demand for them.

    There are enormous problems with transitioning to anything even remotely resembling a sustainable economy, and every single option is problematic in terms of climate, overall environmental impact, technological and economic barriers and anything else. Of course, it goes without saying, that an unprecedented reduction in energy usage has to be part of any sensible transition. But even if we were to cut transport and other energy uses by 90% (and such a reduction itself would need a lot of energy inputs to, for example, build the necessary public transport networks and insulate homes and businesses), that still leaves a requirement worldwide for a lot of power, and at present technology and prices, electrifying as many energy sources as possible and powering this with renewables matched with storage (there are many types of power storage, lithium batteries being just one in the mix – in reality, we will need them all).

    Elon Musk may be a bad guy, but just because he makes upmarket electric car, that does not mean EV’s are a bad idea. Mussolini, after all, made the train system work better.

    1. Synoia

      I have lived in the tropics in a home with no insulation and no a/c. The design of the house prevented any direct sunlight on windows.

      On houses in a cold environment, the key is good insulation, and well fitting door and windows. Most US houses are poorly insulated, with cavities or gaps in the insulation.

      Test the home with an infra red camera, and find out where the heat is escaping, or entering.

      Insulate the roof first. The second is the exterior walls, by removing drywall, installing insulation, and replacing the drywall.

      1. John Rose

        Back in the ’80’s I was building bottom-priced houses with a guarantee of $440 electricity cost per year. Cost me about $1000 extra and gov’t program maybe $1500.
        Extra insulation required, adequately tight windows & doors, not extra expensive. An extra contractor came in before insulation was installed and foamed every crack in the structure. When complete, they did a blower door test to make sure the air exchange rate was 2 or 3 an hour–that was the most important part. Most houses’ rate was 4 or 5 times that. I may be off on these specific numbers but the ratio should be close.
        Retrofitting is a whole different ball game, but would fit well with a guaranteed jobs program. Should be able to reduce energy use to 30-50% in many houses.

    2. Carolinian

      Sorry but not buying it. The whole premise of the article is that lithium becomes impractical upon mass adoption. Current prices therefore mean nothing as only a tiny fraction of cars on the road at the moment are powered by lithium batteries.

      And while I agree that Musk deserves more respect than he typically gets, practicality is not exactly his strong suit. His space goal is to terraform Mars (he scolds Space X employees who are doubters) and back at the beginning of Tesla some of the engineers wanted a small practical car whereas he insisted on a sports car with huge range for marketing purposes. That huge range means that Teslas have to have lots and lots of batteries compared to a shorter range commuter car.

      Apparently the Chinese are now turning out EVs like hotcakes so that will put your mass adoption predictions to more of a test. But the insistence on lithium is because, yes, it’s currently relatively cheap. Previous EVs did not use lithium and took the performance penalty. To me the common sense of the above article is undeniable. And as a techie optimist I feel sure some more practical technology will come along soon.

      1. Alex

        The whole premise of the article is that lithium becomes impractical upon mass adoption

        The article makes no effort to prove it. To say that we’d need to increase lithium production 10 times to meet the demand and therefore it’s impossible is logically wrong. The current reserves is simply the amount that can be mined profitably at today’s prices and technology. If prices increase the reserves will increase as well simply because it will make sense economically to mine in more places.

        1. James Simpson

          it will make sense economically to mine in more places

          which means catastrophe for those places. All mines are hideous, damaging zones of disaster. If you doubt me, point out a mine of any material that’s clean, safe, leaves the natural world as it was, doesn’t displace life, doesn’t use fossil fuels and generate substantial GHG… Go on.

      2. Zamfir

        The lithium in a large EV costs something like $200, as raw ore ( spodumene, not yet processed to pure lithium carbonate ). Sometimes you read about large changes in the price of lithium, but those swings are often related to capacity in refining plants, not on the mining side. So, it’s a minor cost on the scale of the whole car, and fluctuations in the price of raw ore have little effect on the cost of the car.

        At the moment, the mining of lithium basically follows demand. If demand goes up, the big mines increase volume at pretty much a flat cost per tonne. That’s why Ilargi’s numbers are meaningless. Het says that projected lithium demand is far larger than production – which is true. But production is matched to current demand, they are not building up serious reserves for the future. So his numbers only mean that projected demand is larger than current demand, no more, no less.

        Of course, the existing mines and brine fields cannot scale up indefinitely at flat cost. But there are places where they could start new mines. They just don’t do that yet, because those new mines would have to compete with the existing mines – who have plenty of excess capacity at the moment. If prices for lithium ore would go up by permanently by, say, 50%, there would be plenty of money to start new mines. Note, that would only add $100 to the cost of a big-battery car.

        Same goes for recycling – it’s technical feasible, the pilot plants exist, at reasonably large scale. It’s just not very attractive at current prices. The recyclers now focus on the more expensive parts of the battery (cobalt, nickel, for example). Any lithium they get out is a nice bonus, but they will not make much effort for it. And of course, there is not much scale yet. Most EVs ever produced are still on the road. Also, the shape and chemistry of the batteries is changing every few years, so the recyclers are chasing after a moving target. They can reduce costs once they have a large, steady supply of predictable old batteries to work with.

        Of course, there is a limit to all this. PK showed a good study on this. Those limits just have no relation to what Ilargi and Dr D are talking about.

        1. Carolinian

          And the huge water consumption and resultant waste from those brine fields? Also there’s the cobalt used in current batteries which itself is a resource problem. It’s not just about we can do this if we want to and damn the third world consequences.

          Please check the link I offered at end of comments for a possible (several years in the future) solution to some of the problems with current lithium technology. But there seems little question that current lithium battery technology has many issues from safety, environmental and practical considerations.

          1. Zamfir

            I checked the link, but it asked for a subscription to read it all. From what I could read, it’s about a company that works on solid electrolytes? If so, then there are many, many more people working on that, all over the world. My layman impression is that the field is still waiting for the full breakthrough, with a lot of genuine promise but not a full guarantee that it will work out on a large, commercial scale. I do not think it will help on the issues under discussion here. You still need as much lithium, you’ll use the same cathode (which might include cobalt or not, just as with a liquid electrolyte). The potential advantages are elsewhere.

            Regarding the various environmental impacts: yes, obviously it’s bad if we stick other people with the consequences. Extraction processes should get no exemptions if the end product is somehow “green”. At the same time, I don’t think they should have to meet some super-high standard that we do not apply elsewhere.

            My impression is that lithium brine falls in that category. It’s the kind of dirty process that you’ll find in the manufacturing chain of pretty much anything, and that can be more or less managed, depending on how strict the local government is on environmental protection.. To put it in another way: I don’t think I have ever read a magazine article about the environmental impact of brine pits used for minerals other than lithium, even though they are all over the world and no better.

            Cobalt mining in the Congo, by contrast, really does seem to be exceptionally bad.

            1. Jason

              Regarding the various environmental impacts: yes, obviously it’s bad if we stick other people with the consequences. Extraction processes should get no exemptions if the end product is somehow “green”. At the same time, I don’t think they should have to meet some super-high standard that we do not apply elsewhere.

              This isn’t exactly “passing the buck” but it’s similar.

              First, I’m sick of “we” statements. Do you include yourself in the “we” you allude to? Am I included in this “we” statement? I didn’t agree to be.

              Define super-high standards. Once you’ve done that, show me why these standards don’t need to be met across the board in the interest of the environment and human health, which go hand-in-hand.

              1. Zamfir

                It s a collective we, of people who take part in modern life, accepting the benefits from many environmental harms that are worse than lithium brine pits.

                I am all for improvement, for higher standards and lower impact. Across the board, and on specific issues that are particularly bad, and on issues that are relatively easy to improve on (politically or technically). I don’t see a reason to single out lithium production, and I am OK to keep it in the “across the board” category.

    3. c_heale

      Lithium is toxic. See lithium toxicity in wikipedia. And it is extremely dangerous if it ignites. I also think that electric bikes and scooters are more likely to be the future than electric cars. Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time – the improvements were due to predecessors. We still don’t have good storage for renewably generated electricity, because if we did, it would be being widely adopted.

      1. FluffytheObeseCat

        Lithium is in and of itself not a particularly toxic element. It is highly reactive and highly water soluble, but these characteristics are not, per se, toxicity. In both brine and hard rock operations it is usually beneficiated into lithium carbonate and transported in that form. Lithium carbonate is not an unusually reactive or toxic compound.

        For anyone who wants to assess the relative dangers of this compound, here is a copy of the Li2CO3 SDS from a major lab chemical distributor, Fisher Scientific:

        I strongly advise everyone who discusses chemical toxicity to refer to SDSs – not Wikipedia – in order to make their argument. Safety Data Sheets are not readily distorted by biased editors or contributors, unlike Wikipedia pages.

        Bluntly, PlutoniumKun is correct in all the particulars of his comment that I am able to assess. Compared to most other widely used energy materials lithium is fairly benign, and low in toxicity. It is not table salt, but it ranks at category 4 for oral intake on the SDS. Meaning you can eat a little of it and not die of your foolishness.

        It is also a fairly abundant element at and near earth’s surface. If we want more of it, we will easily find a way to mine and extract it in an economical manner. The biggest problem lithium miners face presently is that every time they ramp up production, they crash their own thinly traded market.

        1. Basil Pesto

          The lithium toxicity article on wikipedia refers to overdose of lithium medication. So, toxic in the sense that paracetamol is toxic, which is to say, you have to be fairly committed to making it toxic. I don’t plan on eating lithium batteries any time soon. Never say never though!

    4. Odysseus

      At roughly 10x current price, it becomes economically practical to extract lithium from seawater.

      And there is a massive amount of lithium in the world’s oceans.

      Whether those extraction facilities would come online in any reasonable time frame is a different question, but the idea that we’re limited by current mines is nonsense.

  7. a different chris

    >Wouldn’t it be hilarious if “green” cars in the end prove to be more polluting than “dirty” cars?

    No it would certainly not be funny and no they never will. But I didn’t say “fortunately no” because yes they might still just continue the suck, as in the world doing “business as usual but electric!!” will suck.

    We have too many people. There are 2x as many people on the planet than there were when I was born. There is no technological solution to that level of growth, I don’t care what kind of cars they drive. Even if everybody sits on a “rammed clay floor next to their small wood stove”.

    1. Reality Bites

      No that is not the problem. Another article and another set of comments by people arguing for population reduction. That is not the problem with climate change. Most of the people in countries with growing populations contribute very little to the problems associated with climate change. Energy consumption among the OECD far outstrips the rest of the world.

      Framing the issue as being one of too many people hands you the solution. Please enlighten us on how we are supposed to reduce population. The climate change techno-fix solutions may be pie in the sky but the world has a very long history on population reduction and it is uniformly awful. It also gives the worst polluters an easy way to distract people and avoid responsibility.

      1. Basil Pesto

        Do you think if those big developing countries developed to OECD standards, whatever they may be, that they would maintain their relative energy asceticism?

        The fact that the are no morally or ethically adequate solutions to the problem does not per se mean that the problem is not real.

        1. David in Santa Cruz

          Over-population is the problem, but there are few technical solutions. No amount of magical thinking can change this basic fact.

          A few years ago I attended a lecture by Prof. Ram Ramanathan of the UC Scripps Institute — he showed us satellite photos of the massive smoke plume projected from the Ganges delta over the Bay of Bengal. The cause: tens of millions of poverty-stricken women squatting on dirt floors cooking over cow dung! Political finger-pointing won’t make that smoke plume disappear.

          To paraphrase the great philosopher Linus van Pelt: “We’re doomed.”

          1. Basil Pesto

            and, to my point, if those tens of millions of women put some rupees in GameStop and got out at just the right time, do we really think they’re going back to cow dung stoves?

  8. Zalgiris

    I’m deeply skeptical of technological fixes without addressing the main concern of reducing resource extraction and energy use. Green technologies don’t seem to be a quick fix and seem to be the cause / investment opportunity of the day. We have to change our lifestyles and accept there will be sacrifice. I have read the automatic earth for a while now and admire his work and thoughts on those topics. I am also very skeptical of pointing to a study / analysis by and author with ties to the CATO institute. Seems like an inherent bias.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I will sacrifice standard of living when I see people with a higher standard of living have sacrificed down to my level.

      If that still isn’t enough, then I and they can sacrifice together till we are all down to the next watchful waiter’s level.

      And so on down, step by step.

      But I won’t sacrifice just so Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk don’t have to. And any lifestyle cutbacks i make in the meantime will be designed to the best of my ability to inflict revenue pain against damage-inflicting class perpetrators. Every dollar is a bullet on the field of economic combat.

  9. vegeholic

    Just to parrot earlier comments, if you are going to pretend to be a knowledgeable commentator on technical matters, please learn about units of energy (kwh, joules, BTUs) versus units of energy per unit time (kw, joules per second). It is hard to take other comments seriously if the basics are so clearly misunderstood.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Aye. I happen to agree with Raúl Ilargi Meijer’s conclusion (i.e., “there isn’t enough lithium in the world”), but he botched the math.

      First, he confused 1 kW of typical household power consumption with 1 kWh, resulting in a factor of 24 error. Next, he assumed that the average of 1 kW would still apply. It doesn’t. During extreme weather, power consumption rises sharply. Possibly up to a 15 kW average. Ouch.

      I took a top-down approach to analyzing the problem. The Texas ERCOT area had an electrical demand of approximately 80 GW over the course of the storm, but could only provide 60 GW. This is a 20 GW power shortage for 7 days, resulting in a 20*7*24 = 3360 GWh total energy shortfall. Ilargi assumed that a million 13.5kWh Powerwall 2 units would do the job. They can hold only 13.5 GWh. That’s short by a factor of 250. And if I scale his cost numbers, the total would be $2.5 trillion, not $10 billion.

  10. Mikerw0

    I am not going to debate the merits, or lack there of, of EVs. Right now there is a lot of hype around what is currently a niche product. It may one day go mainstream, certainly many would have you believe it will, but is most point out there seems to be a systematic inability to do math; as illustrated by the table above and the implications, maybe, for lithium.

    Decarbonizing transportation means we need a lot more electricity. I work professionally in the industry, and no one has faced up to the fact of where the electricity will come from and how the grid will need to change. This puts aside the issues of where will people who do not live in single family homes charge their cars.

    We have done the math in several countries. Using the UK as an example…

    Assume the car drives the same KM per year as an internal combustion engine, that it achieves the mid point of the range of kWh per KM, that there is about 20% efficiency loss in the system between generation, transmission and charging, and 10% of cars are charging at any one time, then for a 10% changeover to EVs as a percent of registered vehicles the UK will need to increase generating capacity by 3.8%. How?

    We need to do these things, but you can’t replace the last 125 years of infrastructure buildout in 10-15 years without a lot of commitment and planning.

    I would add that until someone can produce a mini van or SUV to US sizes at the same price and operating characteristics large-scale switching will be slow. And, remember Tesla still can’t make a profit selling cars.

    1. p fitzsimon

      We will need much more electrical energy to replace natural gas heating with electrical heat pumps. Particularly here in the Northeast where heat pumps are not efficient on the many sub-20 days.

  11. Telee

    Why not put more emphasis on public transportation which would reduce the reliance on cars? Another way to use less energy while transporting goods would be more reliance on trains than trucks. Why are we locked into thinking that the only way to reduce fuel used for transport is to build more energy efficient cars?

    1. clarky90

      Re; “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”? I agree wholeheartedly.

      Scotty Kilmer Texas Just Ended the Future of Electric Cars in America
      Feb 23, 2021

      “The truth about Tesla and electric cars. Car advice. DIY car repair with Scotty Kilmer, an auto mechanic for the last 53 years….”

      Humanity is increasingly besotted with “the utterly awful idea” of perfecting the World. Tragically, and invariably, the amazing “innovations”, reveal themselves, to ultimately be, new, persistent poisons, that becomes a blight, in surprising (!) and unexpected ways. (Geoengineering “I was just thinking “outside of the box”. Why don’t we just block the sun and see if that makes our lives better? hmmmm. That could work?!!!”

      For God’s Sake, can we please stop trying to “fix” everything.

  12. jonboinAR

    This Lithium supply issue, whether it’s completely real or not, is why I was a big fan of the Chevy Volt (since discontinued). Through a clever combination of the use of gasoline and electric (battery) power, it was able to get by with a much smaller battery than say, a Tesla (hence a quite smaller Lithium and other metals demand) , use only a quite small modicum of gasoline, usually none on any particular day for most drivers, and, at the same time, pretty well eliminate what’s known as “range anxiety” for electric-car drivers. Sadly, it never really caught on. I blame quite desultory marketing by GM that should have been emphasizing the major differences between the Volt and other hybrids. It would get, over time, very, very good gas mileage. They also failed to address in marketing or in further “educating the public”, the image problem the Volt had in not being a “pure” electric. Also, it bore the “Chevy” nameplate, not green-sexy or upscale-sexy at all. But ^%$! I thought it was a good idea.

  13. gc54

    The imminent Hyundai Ioniq 5 BEV is a crossover SUV (AKA station wagon) with up to a 77 kWh battery that can charge at 350 kW and has a vehicle-to-load discharge capability. So, in principle I can plug it into a circuit in my house on which I have the fridge and say a modern (i.e. not US marketed) split-level heat pump. Seal off a few rooms with thermally insulated doors and I can e.g. survive a few nights of 90+ F Arizona heat in that space or perhaps pump 3x more heat into a structure with some thermal mass. Or, just live inside it …

    A larger Powerwall that you can move around in for only 4x as much assuming you can subtract $7500 credit from a taxable income. Better get yours before the lithium is all tied up …

    ps. the average America all electric house uses 1 MWh/month of electricity.

  14. solar jay

    This whole issue has long been discussed by those of us in the renewable energy field. Lithium is right now the best option for lightweight/high power/hi energy batteries for use in cars, phones, computers etc. It is a huge waste in stationary uses.
    Lots of options for other energy storage.
    flow batteries: perfect for large scale energy storage, and home storage.
    liquid gasoline/diesel: this actually might be the best option. C02 and electricity can make these fuels which we can use in our existing car fleet and air planes. Right now the efficiency isn’t great to make but improvements are rapidly happening.
    hydrogen: The energy density of lithium will never work for long haul trucks, the weight and requirement for charging is beyond the grid in most places. But hydrogen can be made and easily transported via pipelines or tanks or stored in tanks for use when needed. Much higher energy density/weight per energy than lithium batteries, and totally non toxic.

    But one thing that is lost here is that we don’t need energy storage at our homes!!!!

    We need a grid controlled by competent people ( public utilities commission etc) that will keep it up to date and working. Its way cheaper to do that than have the wealthy put batteries in their houses. Fix the grid, and don’t put batteries in homes.

    And here is the quiet part out loud. Without really large home storage you won’t have enough to cover your energy needs because most big use times occur during winter storms, when there is no sun. No sun means no recharge for your batteries, your use is higher ( electric heat, cooking etc) which can easily put you in 50-75+ kWh/day. 3 day storm is 200 kWh. In lithium costs that $140,000 of powerwalls. Yea right.
    OK so how do us off grid people do it, we have a back up generator, its more environmentally friendly to use that have a ridiculous amount of storage that is used 1 x a year. But you have to have the power or you could freeze to death. And having backup NG/propane generators in every back/side/garage is another disaster.

    We need big storage for our grid, which is going to be liquid fuels or hydrogen or some many combinations but not lithium.

    And finally the issue of micro grids has it backwards. The macro grid is what is going to provide energy from the areas that have to those that don’t. Take the islands of Hawaii, hard to call them micro grids but the islands are not connected. With their micro climate weather, one island has lots of extra power and another needs it, so they are putting power lines between the islands because macro is better than micro. Greater flexibility and security not less.

  15. Loic

    You may want to take a look at deep sea mining, which is at the moment being legislated at the UN under the BBNJ treaty.
    Here’s an example, one of the benevolent companies looking to exploit deep sea nodules, volcanic chimneys, etc.

  16. Ian Ollmann

    > That maybe MIGHT not catch on fire like all their cars and solar panels have.

    I think at this point, our author surrendered his credibility. The rest of the article became TL;DR.
    I appreciate factual and relevant discussions of the problem of material supply, but this author is not very interested in that. It is words in support of an preconceived agenda with all the veritas of marketing fluff.

    I suggest this author not be invited back.

  17. Tom Pfotzer

    Please consider:

    a. Most energy gets used, at the household level, for environmental conditioning (HVAC) and for transport. Transport costs the most, HVAC second. Transport has a great deal of latitude for change: decide not transport, and see where that leads you.

    b. Household energy drains. It’s mostly about heat loss. Heat loss from the building envelope, and from refrigeration units (your refrigerator/freezer’s envelope). Heat loss is prevented by appropriate insulation and building design. Well-known, not well-implemented. Massive scope for improvement.

    c. There already exist energy-storage materials which store vast amounts of energy, are cheap, and ubiquitous. One of those is water. Look up the “specific heat index” of water, and note how much energy it can store before it rises in temperature. It’s vast. No moving parts, no mining, etc.

    d. Consider that thermal solar collectors – which collect heat, not electricity – are cheap, easy to build, are composed mostly of easily recycled materials. If the solar collector stores heat in a water tank, the HVAC system can pump the heat from the tank into the house, and the reverse is true during times when heat must be removed from the house.

    e. HVAC systems’ main power usage is divided into three groups: obtaining heat, rejecting (removing) heat, and distribution (forced air fans, for ex). Today most heat for household use is obtained from combustion (household furnace, or remote coal-fired generation). A great deal of that heat could be obtained from solar thermal collectors.

    f. The problem of moving heat (from outside-in, or inside-out) has two big issues. The main efficiency consideration is the difference in temp between the source of heat (the house interior) and the heat sink (the outside air). That’s “delta-T or temp-difference. The greater the delta-T between in-and-out the more efficient the refrigeration system (your AC unit). So, the question is how to jigger the situation to achieve max delta-T. There is a great, great deal of wiggle-room and engineering/innovation scope to increase the delta-T in nearly any environmental setting. The other efficiency consideration is the efficiency (how much energy is wasted from heat loss) of the refrigeration compressor which is the agent that actually pumps heat from one place to another. The efficiency of refrigeration compressors has vastly improved in the last few decades, and there’s scope for plenty more improvement.

    g. Transport. When you look at any process with an eye toward improvement, the best way to increase efficiency is to ID the big resource consumers, and then get rid of them. Transport is a resource hog. And there’s a heck of a lot of transport that is no longer necessary, and we recently discovered that – through no fault of our own – via Covid. It somehow finally dawned on us that business travel and commuting to work were…well, let me see if I can choke this out….they were thoroughly unnecessary. Came as shock, but there it is. It seems like the most obvious stuff takes the longest to see.

    h. Doing all this stuff takes time, effort, and materials. Of course it does, and – after all the other options have been exhausted, the obvious and incremental and no-rents-extractable options will get taken up. Please note that none of the very big-impact things I just stated….involves any new technology or innovation beyond what’s already widely available, and well-known to the various specialists in HVAC, building design, manufacturing, etc. It’s all out there right now.

    W/r/t Iiargi’s article -remember that he tends to sell bombast. He, like many others in the commentariat, sell “objections” and “what’s wrong” and attract readers on the basis of hyperventilation and fear-generation. I find this tedious and un-helpful, so I don’t invest time in those sort of places.

    1. Anders K

      Hrm. I do think that claiming that commuting to work being “unnecessary” is, in itself, bombast. It’s not needed if you’re working in a digitized workplace, but even us “knowledge workers” (or whatever the term is nowadays) need groceries and surprisingly all those groceries need to be delivered. By physical people, no or few robot cars involved.

      It’s really easy to look in your own immediate surroundings and generalize that to everyone, but that’s not helpful, especially not when not commuting to work is a really fast way to not have a work for a lot of people. Some people are even let go because you aren’t commuting any more, and thus their services are no longer required.

      Our society is far more intricately connected than most people realise. Just because you don’t have to commute doesn’t mean everyone is now liberated from the yoke of physical workplaces.

      Another thing to consider is this: when we go to work using digital means, we are making it easier to argue that since our inputs and outputs are digital, it should be easy to replace more of us with AI – it’s certainly not always true, but then again, neither was the premise of outsourcing and look what effects that had.

  18. Nigel Goddard

    As others have said…

    I am so so so tired of reading articles that are careless about confusing energy (kWh) with power (kW). Would they equivalently confuse EV driving range with acceleration?

    And 1kWh per day per home? That’ll get you about 5 minutes in the electric shower.

    These kinds of mistakes call into question all the other numbers given, devaluing the whole article.

  19. p fitzsimon

    The article seems to mix up energy (kWH) and power (kW) making it very confusing for me. I do believe that the EV will not work without recycling. Otherwise you’re just replacing fossil fuel depletion with depleting reserves of copper, cobalt, nickel, etc. It’s even worse with solar panels which have a current estimated life of at most 30 years and then need replacement. Without recycling you create a giant waste stream of panels.

  20. Gregory Etchason

    The rush to EV’s has little to do with the environment and everything to do with shedding 30% of the OEM workforce.

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