Engineer, Aileen Sartor asks: how can we ensure lithium will be available to us when we need it?
When we hear the term lithium, often the first application that springs to mind is the lithium-ion battery. It is used in many applications of varying scale in all aspects of our lives, from batteries for mobile phones, through to batteries in electric vehicles and stationary batteries to support the electricity network.
A critical material can be of high economic value, or can be vital for a specific application, or cannot easily be substituted – or even all three. Often the criticality of the material is attributed to geographic or geopolitical constraints, rather than a lack of abundance. The EU publishes a list of critical raw materials every three years: the most recent was in 2020. It identified 30 critical raw materials and included lithium for the first time. The main global supplier and EU supplier of refined lithium is Chile.
There is currently no substitute material available for the lithium in batteries in electric vehicles and stationary storage systems, and industrial scale recycling of lithium is not economically viable at present. Furthermore, the performance of lithium-ion batteries decreases over time, necessitating regular replacement – as anyone who has been shocked by the cost of replacing a mobile phone battery after just a few years will know. The amount of lithium we will need in the future is only expected to increase as the transition to Net Zero accelerates.
Which leads to the question, how can we ensure lithium will be available to us when we need it? This is a question currently being explored by the UK government. In the Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener it published in October 2021, the government committed to publishing a UK Critical Minerals Strategy in 2022, which will aim to define the approach to securing technology critical minerals and metals. It is anticipated that the Critical Minerals Strategy will have a much wider impact than just upon the lithium-ion battery industry.
But it is never good to be wholly dependent upon a single material resource, so research into alternative advanced materials for batteries, such as sodium-ion, are ongoing. At Frazer-Nash, our materials experts are keeping up to date with the latest materials based innovations, strategies and regulations, so we can help you understand what they mean, and how they will impact on the life cycle of your assets.