Is lithium the new oil?

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Production is Growing

The world currently watches the prices of oil to try to guess the direction the economy is moving. 30 to 50 years from now, as the world moves to cleaner, greener energy, lithium prices might become just as important.

In 2016 the top 10 battery companies produced 29 GWh* of batteries. Battery production from these companies is expected to grow to 1,049 GWh by 2028.

*(GWh means gigawatt hour. Gig means one billion [1,000,000,000] and a watt is a common way to measure electricity. For example, lightbulbs are measured in watts. 3-15 watt lights are ‘energy efficient’. Traditional, less efficient lights might be 60 – 80 watts.)

infographic of estimated battery produciton
Source: Visual Capitalist

Where's the Demand?

Source: Visual Capitalist

The idea to use lithium in batteries started in 1973, and the first lithium batteries were sold in 1991. Since then, demand has continued to grow, with huge increases starting in 2015. Basically every phone, camera, or other small electronic uses a lithium battery. However, these small electronics are not what’s causing the huge increase in demand for lithium. This is actually caused by the need to store renewable energy (wind and solar) and to power electric vehicles. 

Lithium is more energy efficient than traditional batteries and they last for many years, so it’s currently the best technology on the market. There are other battery technologies that might be more efficient, but these are not as developed as lithium.

Pollution is another concern with lithium batteries. They do not produce greenhouse gases, but waste from lithium and other heavy metals used is bad for the environment. The materials that makeup these batteries can be recycled with 99% efficiency. The problem is that only about 2-3% of all batteries are collected and recycled. Many people don’t know how bad these batteries are for the environment, and many governments don’t yet have a system to make sure the batteries get recycled. Also, remember that the huge increase in lithium battery production is a new thing. Since these batteries last a long time, not many have gone to the trash yet. It could be decades before this becomes a serious problem.

The Future

Source: Visual Capitalist

That said, it’s good to consider this problem earlier, not later. Every year, the estimate of future lithium demand increases. Even if some other alternative battery technology becomes a total success in the next 10-20 years, huge investments are already going into lithium ion technology and battery production is already being planned.