Many people would agree that plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and electric (EV) vehicles are the next big shift in the auto industry. They are certainly an attractive alternative to traditional automobiles, and have caught the eye of environmentalists and politicians alike. However, advancements in storage, weight, and cost of batteries are needed before these vehicles can truly be marketable. Lithium-ion batteries may hold the solution to the energy storage problem, and are already widely used in the portable electronics industry. Currently, lithium-ion batteries are also the preferred battery type by a handful of companies developing PHEV and EV systems. In 2010, General Motors expects to release two PHEV models that use lithium-ion batteries .
Lithium is extracted from deposits beneath brine pools, sometimes called “salt flats” . According to the Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium, “lithium is a comparatively rare element…always in very low concentrations…[and] only comparatively a few of [the deposits] are of actual or potential commercial value” . Like oil, lithium is a limited commodity and the same economic and political principals should apply. Unfortunately, this fact has gone largely overlooked, overshadowed by the enthusiasm for these “green cars.” Where we get our source of lithium and the environmental, political, and social impacts caused by a large increase in its demand are important policy issues that future PHEV and EV manufacturers will have to face.
In 2008, Meridian International Research conducted a study of the world’s existing and future lithium resources and what that means for the future market of PHEV and EV vehicles. The study resulted in four main conclusions. First, anticipated demands for lithium, from the PHEV and EV markets as well as the growing portable electronics industry, far exceed the existing and future reserves. Secondly, these recoverable reserves are significantly lower than previously estimated. Thirdly, substantial damage to the ecosystem will result from the mass production of lithium. And lastly, production of lithium will worsen the U.S.’s already strained relationship with Latin America, where the vast majority of lithium resources are located . A recent NY Times article highlights the political concerns effecting future lithium production, calling Bolivia, home to half of the world’s lithium deposits, the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” .
While the availability and future demand for lithium can only be speculated, more research should be done into less harmful methods for lithium extraction and production. Similarly, more R&D dollars could be spent on improving other types of batteries that aren’t dependent on non-renewable resources. In fact, improving energy storage is also essential to making renewable energy technologies like solar and wind competitive with conventional technologies. Batteries that can store energy from the sun and wind, to be dispatched to the grid during peak demand, are critical if solar and wind technologies are ever going to surpass fossil fuels for power generation. The need for improved energy storage will only grow from here, and a sustainable source will need to be discovered. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of renewable energies and “green cars,” we cannot disregard the need for a comprehensive analysis of the long-term costs of their mass production.