Lithium: The Fuel of the Green Revolution
The world is shifting greener.
And while people have always wanted electric cars and inexpensive solar power, the reality is that until recently, battery technology just wasn’t good enough to store energy on an economical or practical basis.
Things have changed, and the green revolution has been kickstarted by battery power. The commercialization of the lithium-ion battery has solved a crucial green energy problem for two major reasons that can be related back to the properties of lithium:
1) Lithium has extremely high electrochemical potential, and so do lithium-ion cells:
|Battery cell||Typical Voltage|
This means one lithium-ion cell can do more – making it much more efficient to use in everything from electronics to energy storage.
2) Lithium is also the lightest metal on the periodic table. Batteries need to be as light as possible, especially in electric cars.
How Lithium Gets Used
Many years ago, lithium was used chiefly for a variety of industrial purposes. Major sources of lithium demand included ceramics, glass, aluminum production, lubricants, and as a catalyst for rubber production.
In modern times, with the commercialization of the lithium-ion, batteries are now the major source of demand for lithium at 39%.
According to a report by Deutsche Bank, in 2025 the battery market for lithium alone will be more than 2x bigger than the total lithium market today.
About 70% of all lithium will go to electric vehicles, e-bikes, traditional batteries, and energy storage, making it the uncontested fuel of the green revolution.
Major Lithium Drivers
Lithium-ion battery demand is primarily driven by rapid growth in the electric vehicle market, which is expected to make up 35% of all vehicle demand by 2040.
But renewable energy storage also plays a role in driving lithium demand. With solar and wind energy being installed at a rapid pace, that means more batteries must be procured to store this energy. This can be done for a home system with a product like Tesla’s Powerwall 2.0, and it is being done on a utility scale as well.
Two Types of Lithium
Prices for lithium have skyrocketed in the last two years – and it is worth knowing the two different types of lithium used by the market.
This is the first chemical in the production chain, and as a result, sells for less than lithium hydroxide. It can be used as cathode material in some batteries, such as the Nissan Leaf, where it is used in a LMO with NMC formulation (Lithium manganese oxide / nickel manganese cobalt oxide chemistries)
This is a by-product of lithium carbonate, created by a metathesis reaction with calcium hydroxide. It can be used to produce cathode material more efficiently and is actually necessary for some types of cathodes. It’s used in the Tesla Powerwall and Model S, for example.
There are two basic ways to extract lithium: from brine or from hard rock. The latter mainly consists of spodumene production.
Brine deposits represent about 66% of global lithium resources, and are found mainly in the salt flats of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, China, and Tibet.
The most famous area for lithium is known as the Lithium Triangle, located on the border between Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. Salar de Atacama, the world’s third largest salt flat, resides on the Chilean side, and contains about 50% of global reserves.
The largest lithium producers in 2015 were Chile (37%) and Australia (33%). Argentina is the only other double-digit producer at 11%.
Lithium is Fueling the Green Revolution
Here’s the estimated amount of lithium that can be found in everyday items using lithium-ion batteries:
Tesla Model S: 51kg
Electric Vehicles: 10-63kg
Tesla Powerwall 2.0: 10kg
Hybrids: 0.8kg to 2.0kg
Power tool batteries: 40-60g
Mobile phones: 2-3g
Visualizing Copper’s Role in the Transition to Clean Energy
A clean energy transition is underway as wind, solar, and batteries take center stage. Here’s how copper plays the critical role in these technologies.
A future powered by renewables is not in the distant horizon, but rather in its early hours.
This new dawn comes from a global awareness of the environmental impacts of the current energy mix, which relies heavily on fossil fuels and their associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Technologies such as wind, solar, and batteries offer renewable and clean alternatives and are leading the way for the transition to clean energy. However, as with every energy transition, there are not only new technologies, but also new material demands.
Copper: A Key Piece of the Puzzle
This energy transition will be mineral intensive and it will require metals such as nickel, lithium, and cobalt. However, one metal stands out as being particularly important, and that is copper.
Today’s infographic comes to us from the Copper Development Association and outlines the special role of copper in renewable power generation, energy storage, and electric vehicles.
The red metal has four key properties that make it ideal for the clean energy transition.
It is these properties that make copper the critical material for wind and solar technology, energy storage, and electric vehicles.
It’s also why, according to ThinkCopper, the generation of electricity from solar and wind uses four to six times more copper than fossil fuel sources.
Copper in Wind
A three-megawatt wind turbine can contain up to 4.7 tons of copper with 53% of that demand coming from the cable and wiring, 24% from the turbine/power generation components, 4% from transformers, and 19% from turbine transformers.
The use of copper significantly increases when going offshore. That’s because onshore wind farms use approximately 7,766 lbs of copper per MW, while an offshore wind installation uses 21,068 lbs of copper per MW.
It is the cabling of the offshore wind farms to connect them to each other and to deliver the power that accounts for the bulk of the copper usage.
Copper in Solar
Solar power systems can contain approximately 5.5 tons of copper per MW. Copper is in the heat exchangers of solar thermal units as well as in the wiring and cabling that transmits the electricity in photovoltaic solar cells.
Navigant Research projects that 262 GW of new solar installations between 2018 and 2027 in North America will require 1.9 billion lbs of copper.
Copper in Energy Storage
There are many ways to store energy, but every method uses copper. For example, a lithium ion battery contains 440 lbs of copper per MW and a flow battery 540 lbs of copper per MW.
Copper wiring and cabling connects renewable power generation with energy storage, while the copper in the switches of transformers help to deliver power at the right voltage.
Across the United States, a total of 5,752 MW of energy capacity has been announced and commissioned.
Copper in Electric Vehicles
Copper is at the heart of the electric vehicle (EV). This is because EVs rely on copper for the motor coil that drives the engine.
The more electric the car, the more copper it needs; a car powered by an internal combustion engine contains roughly 48 lbs, a hybrid needs 88 lbs, and a battery electric vehicle uses 184 lbs.
Additionally, the cabling for charging stations of electric vehicles will be another source of copper demand.
The Copper Future
Advances in technologies create new material demands.
Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that the transition to renewables is going to create demand for many minerals – and copper is going to be a critical mineral for the new era of energy.
How Much Oil is in an Electric Vehicle?
It is counterintuitive, but electric vehicles are not possible without oil – these petrochemicals bring down the weight of cars to make EVs possible.
How Much Oil is in an Electric Vehicle?
When most people think about oil and natural gas, the first thing that comes to mind is the gas in the tank of their car. But there is actually much more to oil’s role, than meets the eye…
Oil, along with natural gas, has hundreds of different uses in a modern vehicle through petrochemicals.
Today’s infographic comes to us from American Fuel & Petrochemicals Manufacturers, and covers why oil is a critical material in making the EV revolution possible.
It turns out the many everyday materials we rely on from synthetic rubber to plastics to lubricants all come from petrochemicals.
The use of various polymers and plastics has several advantages for manufacturers and consumers:
- Easy to Shape
- Flame Retardant
Today, plastics can make up to 50% of a vehicle’s volume but only 10% of its weight. These plastics can be as strong as steel, but light enough to save on fuel and still maintain structural integrity.
This was not always the case, as oil’s use has evolved and grown over time.
Not Your Granddaddy’s Caddy
Plastics were not always a critical material in auto manufacturing industry, but over time plastics such as polypropylene and polyurethane became indispensable in the production of cars.
Rolls Royce was one of the first car manufacturers to boast about the use of plastics in its car interior. Over time, plastics have evolved into a critical material for reducing the overall weight of vehicles, allowing for more power and conveniences.
Rolls Royce uses phenol formaldehyde resin in its car interiors
Henry Ford experiments with an “all-plastic” car
About 20 lbs. of plastics is used in the average car
Manufacturers begin using plastic for interior decorations
Headlights, bumpers, fenders and tailgates become plastic
Engineered polymers first appear in semi-structural parts of the vehicle
The average car uses over 1000 plastic parts
Electric Dreams: Petrochemicals for EV Innovation
Plastics and other materials made using petrochemicals make vehicles more efficient by reducing a vehicle’s weight, and this comes at a very reasonable cost.
For every 10% in weight reduction, the fuel economy of a car improves roughly 5% to 7%. EV’s need to achieve weight reductions because the battery packs that power them can weigh over 1000 lbs, requiring more power.
Today, plastics and polymers are used for hundreds of individual parts in an electric vehicle.
Oil and the EV Future
Oil is most known as a source of fuel, but petrochemicals also have many other useful physical properties.
In fact, petrochemicals will play a critical role in the mass adoption of electric vehicles by reducing their weight and improving their ranges and efficiency. In According to IHS Chemical, the average car will use 775 lbs of plastic by 2020.
Although it seems counterintuitive, petrochemicals derived from oil and natural gas make the major advancements by today’s EVs possible – and the continued use of petrochemicals will mean that both EVS and traditional vehicles will become even lighter, faster, and more efficient.
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