We are on the verge of an electric age. An age that will be driven by the ultra-light power of the lithium-ion battery. Lithium-ion batteries are used in a variety of applications, from small-scale use in consumer products to large-scale application in cars and industrial systems. Lithium-ion batteries are most often designed to be rechargeable, which is the focus of this web page, but other types of lithium batteries are available as long-lasting single-use batteries.
Small scale lithium-ion batteries are commonly used as non-rechargeable and rechargeable AA or AAA batteries in a variety of devices. Lithium ion batteries are found in music players, smartphones, and laptops.
Courtesy of Wikimedia
Courtesy of Wikimedia
Lithium-ion batteries have become the battery chemistry of choice for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and fully electric vehicles (EVs). Other mid-sized applications include the Tesla Powerwall and military and industrial applications.
Tesla Powerwall courtesy of Wikimedia
2, 3, 4, 5
Grid-scale lithium-ion batteries are chiefly used for automotive and industrial purposes. Industrial scale lithium-ion batteries are used to store renewable energy, and for military and utilities uses.
Grid scale battery storage courtesy of NEC Energy Solutions
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
American chemist and engineer G.N. Lewis first attempted to develop a lithium-ion battery pack in 1912. In the decades that followed this initial experiment scientists and companies turned their attention to other battery technologies, chiefly lead-acid and alkaline batteries. Nearly 70 years later, John B. Goodenough, an American chemist, created the Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LiCoO2) cathode, while French research scientist Rachid Yazami discovered the graphite anode. These finding were brought together in 1985 by Akira Yoshino of Asahi Chemical and his research team in Japan. They built the first lithium-ion battery prototype, a more stable and rechargeable version of the lithium battery.
The lithium-ion battery was first marketed in Japan by Sony in 1991, followed by the commercialization of the lithium polymer battery in 1994 by Bellcore. This began a decade long spread of the lithium-ion battery. In 1994 a lithium-ion battery debuted in the Motorola Micro Tac Elite cell phone. Apple released the first iPod in 2001 which featured a lithium polymer battery. By 2011 lithium-ion batteries accounted for 66% of all portable secondary (rechargeable) battery sales in Japan.
The most commonly used lithium ion battery chemistry today is the same that was used in 1991, Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LiCoO2). However, due to issues surrounding the price and supply of cobalt, as well as safety issues concerning the flammability of lithium-ion batteries, manufacturers have developed alternative lithium ion battery chemistries in recent years. Two popular alternative cathode chemistries to the cobalt cathode are manganese and iron; both manganese and iron are common minerals, readily available with more secure supply chains, less toxic, and significantly cheaper. This resulted in the Lithium Manganese Oxide (LiMn2O4) and Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) chemistries. These alternatives do have their drawbacks. For instance, both Lithium Manganese Oxide and Lithium Iron Phosphate have lower energy densities than Lithium Cobalt Oxide. Canadian Moli energy introduced a lithium-ion battery with manganese cathode in 1996.
Data and Adapted from Battery University 8
As the number of smart phones, laptops, and electric cars continues to grow, so will demand for lithium-ion batteries. Electric cars have the potential to drive a tremendous increase in demand for lithium-ion batteries. The global market for lithium-ion batteries is predicted to reach $24 billion by 2023. 9 A Tesla Model S battery is 20,000 times larger (by weight) than an iPhone 6 battery. 10, 11 Also, the production of large utility scale batteries is expected to grow to provide storage for renewable energy sources. Currently new plans for a lithium-ion super battery are underway that would focus on changing the way they are manufactured to increase density and capacity. Yet-Ming Chiang is among those working toward this battery of the future. Chiang is a materials-science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a founder of A123 Systems, an advanced lithium-ion battery manufacturer. Chiang plans to create a cheaper, greener lithium-ion battery by improving the efficiency of battery manufacturing processes through his new company 24M. 12 For further information on 24M.
A key goal of governments and companies alike has been lowing the price per kilowatt hour (kWh) for lithium-ion batteries to make electric cars competitive with gas-powered cars. The general consensus is that the price needs to reach $100 per kWh for widespread adoption. Currently, prices are generally $259-$400 per kWh. Studies project prices will fall to $150 per kWh by 2030. 13 If these price drops are realized, it is estimated that electric cars could grow to 25% to 50% of the market in coming decades because they would be price competitive with conventional cars.
Adapted from Ramez Naam 14
Adapted from Nature Climate Change. 13
As the scale of lithium-ion batteries production increases, questions about how to manage such batteries at end-of-life will become more urgent. Currently, experts estimate only 3% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. 1 This urgency will increase as the first generation of electric vehicle batteries reach the end of their lifespans. But developing the recycling infrastructure is challenging, since lithium batteries are complex and non-standardized, making recycling inefficient and costly. Standardization in the industry, and most especially for electric vehicle batteries, would make recycling easier, cheaper, and more efficient.
Although the lithium batteries is named for lithium, lithium only accounts for a fraction of the batteries' mass. Lithium batteries depend mightily on other materials, including carbon, cobalt, iron, nickel, and phosphate, depending upon the particular chemistry, for their performance. It is these other materials, more so than the lithium, which drive the environmental impacts associated with the sourcing, production, and recycling of lithium-batteries.
The most common cathode chemistry used in lithium-ion batteries is Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LiCoO2) or LCO. Lithium Cobalt Oxide is the most popular choice due to its high energy density. Other popular chemistries for cathodes include:
Manganese and iron are used as an alternative despite their lower energy density because manganese and iron are cheaper, abundant, and have a stable supply.
The most common anode used in lithium-ion batteries consists of graphite coated on copper foil. Graphite anodes can use either natural graphite, produced through mining, or synthetic graphite, which is a manufactured alternative.
Lithium is the magic ingredient in lithium-ion batteries. What makes it special is its low molecular weight: it can store approximately four times as much energy per kilogram (kg) as a traditional lead-acid battery, and this lightness is due to the fact that lithium is number three on the periodic table and the lightest metal. Lithium comes from five main sources: continental brines, pegmatites, hectorite clays, geothermal brines, and oil field brines.15 Seventy percent of lithium is produced from continental brines and 30% from hard rock minerals.16 The US Geological Survey estimated in 2010 the world's lithium resources at 25.5 million tons, which is almost 900 times what was consumed in 2013.17 Even though batteries account for only 26% of lithium consumption, that is the single largest end use for lithium.16
Adapted from Talison Minerals18
Salar de Atacama in Chile: courtesy of Wikimedia
Top Global Producers of Lithium Carbonate19
Most lithium batteries contain lithium carbonate sourced from salt flats, many of which are concentrated in the arid highlands of South America. Although such salt flats, also known as salars, are found in Bolivia, Argentina, and, to a lesser extent, China, the single largest producer of lithium in the world is the Salar de Atacama in Chile. 19 The first step of the process involves pumping brine from the subsurface aquifers to the surface and into solar ponds. The brine then goes through eight months of evaporation in solar ponds that raises the lithium content from 0.2% to 6%, before it sent to a facility for further processing into lithium carbonate which is used to make the battery electrodes. 20
Brine production is a sustainability success story, especially compared to other lithium production methods. For example, the second largest source of lithium is spodumene, a hard rock, which must be mined and processed. That process, which is similar to more conventional forms of mining, is far more energy and fossil fuel intensive and creates significant environmental damage.
Courtesy of Rodinia Lithium21
Not surprisingly, the value of lithium has risen significantly in recent decades and is projected to continue to grow rapidly as the demand for electric cars grows. Though there were worries about running out of lithium a decade ago, estimates of world reserves have risen almost yearly as new geological surveys are taken.
Created with data from the U.S.G.S.22
As demand continues to increase for lithium it is likely that large-scale brine production will begin at other salt flats such as the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, Salar de Rincon in Argentina, Tibet, China, Nevada, and Salar de Atacama in Chile. However, some of these sites or potential sites have criticality issues that would affect supply. For example, Salar de Uyuni faces geopolitical issues; the socialist Bolivian government is strongly opposed to foreign mining companies producing lithium and have unsuccessfully, so far, attempted to create a national lithium industry. 23
From the perspective of sustainability, cobalt is the Achilles heel of most lithium-ion batteries - it comes with significant social consequences and environmental costs. Cobalt is a relatively rare metal that is generally obtained as a byproduct of mining copper and nickel as well as other metals; primary cobalt mining is uncommon. From an overall sustainability standpoint, cobalt is the material with the largest impact. Cobalt is not classified as a conflict mineral though many issues surround its production and use. This is due to the fact that it is produced as a byproduct of copper mining, and copper is not classified as a conflict mineral.24
Top 5 Global Cobalt Producers.25
Sixty-five percent of cobalt comes from Africa's copper belt region in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia.26 The DRC alone produced 51% of the global supply of cobalt in 2010 and revenues from cobalt contributed 20% of the country's GDP.27 Cobalt mining in the DRC is the cause of several environmental justice and human health concerns. The DRC, despite being the richest country in the world in terms of mineral wealth, valued at $24 trillion, is rated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the poorest country in the world.28 The profit from mining and conflict minerals fuel human rights abuses in the DRC. The mining in the DRC that produces cobalt is dangerous work for long hours and little pay, in addition to the fact that cobalt itself is toxic and leads to chronic exposure of miners and people living in the vicinity of mines and smelters. (See case study below).
Lithium-ion batteries can use both natural and synthetic graphite as material for the anode. Currently about half of battery manufacturers use natural and half use synthetic graphite. Natural graphite is typically half as expensive as synthetic, however, the supply chain of natural graphite is unstable due to limits on exports, tariffs, and volatile prices. China is the world's largest producer of natural graphite. China has placed high export tariffs on natural graphite, driving up the cost for the manufacture of products that require graphite in other countries, which has led to the popularity of synthetic graphite as an alternative. Synthetic graphite is usually more than twice as expensive as natural graphite and is highly energy intensive to produce.
Top 5 Global Natural Graphite Producers.29
Adapted from Industrial Minerals30
Salar de Atacama courtesy of Wikimedia
The Salar de Atacama is a case study in sustainable lithium brine production. It is the third largest salt flat in the world and the world's single largest lithium producer. This single ancient lake bed contains 27% of the world's reserve of lithium according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Rockwood Lithium Inc. started lithium production at the Salar de Atacama in 1984.31 Currently, two companies are producing lithium from the Salar de Atacama. The first is Chemetall Foote, a subsidiary of Rockwood Lithium (Rockwood Holdings Inc.). The second is Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile S.A., or SQM.
The Salar de Atacama in Chile courtesy of Google Maps
The Salar de Atacama has three advantages over other salars: its brine has high lithium content, the cost of production is low because the brine has lower levels of magnesium which has to be extracted, and Salar de Atacama has faster evaporation rates compared to other salt flats because of its low precipitation rates and high temperatures.20 The geography and political logistics also make Salar de Atacama a desirable choice.
Courtesy of Google Maps
The salar is located on a flat plain rather than on top of a mountain ridge, like the Salar de Uyuni, and it is relatively close to the ocean, which makes the roads and necessary infrastructure for export cheaper. Politically the salar is controlled by the Chilean government, which has a long history of good relationships with foreign mining companies.
The Atacama desert is the driest place on earth with average precipitation of 15 millimeters or just over half an inch per year and a very high evaporation rate.32 Concerns have been raised about the potential for brine from the evaporation pools contaminating other water sources. However, the fact that the evaporation takes place on salt flats with very few bodies of water close by and desert-like conditions lowers the risk. From a sustainability perspective lithium production from brines is energy efficient, relying on solar energy for evaporation, and the majority of energy used goes into refining the lithium into battery grade purity. Brine production does not cause any human or animal displacement, is highly mechanized, causes little environmental damage, and poses no significant human health risks. The amount of lithium that has been produced from the salar is only a small portion of the reserve that lies below the surface of the salar; there is little worry of running out of lithium at the salar anytime soon.
Retriev Technologies, formerly known as Toxco Inc., is a US company founded in 1984 that specializes in battery recycling, and is the only company in the US that recycles lithium-ion batteries. Retriev is headquartered in California with recycling centers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and British Columbia.33 Retriev's mission statement:
"Retriev Technologies is dedicated to pursuing and demonstrating our unwavering commitment to best recycling practices and closed loop materials recovery and management.
...Retriev excels at delivering cut to fit battery management programs for a wide range of consumers, municipalities, government contractors and industries.
Our goal is to help improve your bottom line, environmentally, socially, and economically."34
Retriev was the only battery recycler to receive a grant from the Department of Energy (DOE), under DE-FOA-0000026-Area of Interest 4 (Advanced Lithium ion Battery Recycling Facilities), to expand their Ohio facilities to recycle hybrid and electric car batteries, aid in utilizing advanced battery technologies for "Battery to Battery" recycling, and dedicate a facility to the recycling of the growing hybrid electric and electric vehicle market.
Retriev uses different recycling methods based on the type of battery. Larger lithium-ion batteries such as electric vehicle batteries first go through manual disassembly. Next, separated cells and smaller batteries (phones, laptops, etc.) go through an automated crusher which operates under a liquid solution to prevent emissions and reduce reactivity. The results from this process are plastic fluff, metal solids, and metal enriched liquid. The metal solids contains copper, aluminium, and cobalt. In a different process the lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) is precipitated and separated; lithium can be reused an unlimited number of times.35 The metal enriched liquid is solidified and sent off for further purification.36 Lithium cobalt oxide batteries are the only lithium-ion battery that is profitable to recycle.
Cobalt mining in the Katanga copperbelt region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has had serious impacts on the region and its inhabitants. The copper and nickel mines that produce cobalt as a by-product are unregulated and dangerous, despite increasing mechanization. Much of the mining is still done by hand and miners spend long days underground or in open pits for low wages and no benefits. However, it is not just the miners that are affected by the cobalt, but the people living near mining and smelting operations as well. Points of exposure for cobalt include swallowing, inhalation, and skin contact. Chronic long-term exposure to cobalt can cause a variety of health issues including cardiomyopathy, nerve problems, thickening of the blood, and thyroid issues. The worst form of cobalt poisoning stems from breathing cobalt dust into the lungs which leads to chronic lung issues. Symptoms and issues from long-term cobalt exposure are rarely reversible and people affected will have to take medicine for the rest of their lives to manage the symptoms.37
The Katanga Region of the Democratic Republic of Congo
A 2009 study published in the Environmental Research Journal found that average cobalt levels in urine samples of people living in close proximity to mining and smelting sites was elevated above the highest acceptable standard. Furthermore, 87% of children living in close proximity had cobalt levels elevated above the safety standard.38 The negative effects of cobalt exposure are further compounded by the fact that the majority of the population in the region lives in poverty and is unable to afford medical care or expensive medications.
Notes: Production/Capacity: :'000 tonnes
Courtesy of Industrial Minerals39
China produces 55% of the world's natural flake graphite, the type of natural graphite that is used in lithium-ion battery anodes.30 Chinese production is concentrated in Heilongjiang Province, followed by Shandong and Shanxi provinces. Because China is such a large producer it also has significant geopolitical control over the supply and pricing of natural graphite. It exercised that control by placing high tariffs on the export of graphite that resulted in the US, EU, and Japan filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2012 over China's rare earth elements (REEs) trade practices; the WTO ruled against China in 2013.
The mining of natural flake graphite in China has caused significant environmental damage and environmental justice issues. Open pit mining is the method most commonly used in China and a byproduct of the mining process is wastewater and other materials that are dumped in manmade tailings ponds. Tailings ‘ponds' are dykes filled with sludge several feet deep that can have high concentrations of heavy metals and other toxic contaminants. The largest tailing ponds can grow to the size of Central Park.40 Provinces have had issues with the contaminants and water from the tailings ponds contaminating reservoirs and sources of drinking water. Another health issue is the graphite dust itself that contaminates the regions near mines and is bad for humans and animals in the area. The Department of Environmental Protection in Heilongjiang province announced plans to make graphite mining more efficient and responsible by consolidating existing mining operations. The department plans to reduce the current 36 mining rights to 25 by 2020.41 These environmental justice issues must be taken into account when considering the environmental consequences of lithium-based batteries.
Tesla Motors Inc, an American automobile and battery company headed by CEO Elon Musk, plans expand the company's production to 500,000 vehicles per year in the next five years.42 The Tesla Gigafactory is being built to supply lithium-ion batteries for that level of electric car production. Tesla broke ground on the factory in the desert outside of Sparks, Nevada in June, 2014, plans to begin lithium ion cell production by 2017, and anticipates reaching full capacity of 35 gigawatt-hours (GWh) by 2020. The batteries the Gigafactory will produce in a year can store enough electricity to power all of New York City for nine days.42 By building the Gigafactory Tesla aims to lower prices of lithium-ion batteries per kWh by 30%, by "using economies of scale, innovative manufacturing, reduction of waste, and the simple optimization of locating most manufacturing process under one roof."42 Lowering the cost per kilowatt hour (kWh) will make Tesla's vehicles more affordable and accessible to more car owners. The production goal of 500,000 vehicles is the battery cell equivalent of producing 3.5 billion iPhones. This raises concerns about the unprecedented increases in demand for lithium and the criticality of lithium, cobalt, and graphite.
The Gigafactory is designed to be completely powered by renewable energy sources, including solar and wind, with the ultimate goal of net-zero energy. However, to measure the overall sustainability of the Gigafactory one needs to take into account the entire supply chain. The Gigafactory can not be understood without thinking about the salt flats of South America, the war-torn mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the polluted cities of China. With greater demand for lithium-ion batteries, it risks that each of these situations gets worse. Even though increasing demand for lithium-batteries could mean world run on cleaner energy, it isn't without social consequences.
Courtesy of Tesla Motors Inc
When lithium-ion batteries die, or the products they are a part of are discarded, they often become a part of the e-waste stream. Recycling lithium-ion batteries is difficult and expensive, especially compared to older technologies, such as lead-acid batteries. The chemistry and structure of lithium-ion batteries are more complex than lead-acid batteries; this complexity makes lithium-ion batteries more expensive to recycle and process. However, because of the high cost and criticality of cobalt, it is currently profitable to recycle lithium cobalt oxide batteries. That is not the case for other lithium battery chemistries that use cathodes containing iron and manganese. In those cases, it costs more to recycle the batteries than the recycled materials are worth on the market. There are several companies and programs to collect lithium-ion batteries. In The U.S., the largest is Call2Recycle. To boost recycling rates some policymakers propose shifting the burden from consumers back to producers under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
Adapted from Battery University1
No specific national policy regarding the manufacture, use, or disposal of lithium batteries exists in the United States. Currently the only policies regarding lithium-ion batteries pertain to their transport, due to their flammability. The federal government classifies lithium batteries as non-hazardous waste and does not mandate recycling. However, some states do have policies regarding lithium-ion batteries. The majority of states encourage the recycling of lithium-ion batteries but do not require it and have no legislation regarding it.
Arguably the most important US policy regarding lithium-ion batteries to date is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Recovery Act allocated $2.4 billion for advanced battery development and electric vehicle development. This funding went to 48 different technology and electric vehicle projects in over 20 states. Department of Energy (DoE) grants of $249 million went to A123, which went bankrupt in 2012, and $45 million to Johnson Controls to build manufacturing bases in Michigan for advanced batteries.43 Compact Power and Dow Kokam received over $300 million for manufacturing battery cells and materials. GM, Chrysler, and Ford were granted $400 million to manufacture advanced hybrid and electric vehicles, batteries, and electric drive components.45 All of this was part of a larger effort by the U.S. government to position the country at the forefront of a global battery and electric vehicle industry. The Administration hoped to create a green future for the auto industry with high-paying jobs that would revive the economy.46 Progress has been uneven. In his 2011 State of the Union President Obama called for 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.47 In 2014 there were only 234,023 electric vehicles on the road, far short of the President's goal.48 Despite falling short of the President's goal the US electric vehicle industry has grown significantly, from just two manufacturers when Obama first announced his goal to nearly 20 in 2014, and electric car sales have increased over 600% since 2011.48
The European Union (E.U.) regulates batteries in the policies established on September 6, 2006 in Directive 2006/66/EC, known as the the Battery Directive.50 The Battery Directive aims to improve the management of batteries through the regulation of the disposal and recycling of batteries. Under this directive, electric car batteries are categorized as industrial batteries, which must be recycled.
Battery policy in Canada varies from province to province. Canada has extended producer responsibility for batteries in some provinces: it is mandatory in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec and voluntary in other provinces.51 Additionally, nationally the stewardship programs has yet to set any quantifiable goals.51 Many Canadian provinces use Call2Recycle for battery collection and recycling management.
Lithium-ion batteries are important to a greener future fueled by renewable energy.
As the market for lithium-ion batteries continues to grow in scale, increasing the magnitude of the production of smart phones, computers, and cars, the supply of the materials necessary to make the batteries will be a concern. Estimates of global lithium reserves have continued to rise. It is estimated that the amount available in the world today is enough to make over 1.5 billion electric cars.52 It is clear that there is a finite amount of continental brines from which lithium can be produced. Though there are many other sources from which lithium can be extracted (hard rock, geothermal brines, sea water, etc) they contain lower concentrations and lower quality forms of lithium. This means more energy will be used to extract the lithium and process it to battery grade, which could raise sustainability concerns.
Is it possible to transition away from cobalt-based lithium batteries?
Although running out of lithium is not an immediate concern, the criticality of cobalt is. Cobalt is rare in the earth's crust and there is very little primary cobalt mining. The mining that produces cobalt is embroiled in geo-political and human rights issues. For these reasons, other battery chemistries, such as lithium manganese oxide or lithium iron phosphate, are preferable. Similarly, synthetic graphite is preferable to natural graphite. Although synthetic graphite is most often derived from petroleum or coal, which is an energy intensive process, it results in a high purity graphite that requires much less refining than natural graphite. Also, the supply chain is more secure, since it does not depend upon limited resources of natural graphite.
Can we close the loop for lithium batteries?
Another key issue as the production of lithium-ion batteries continues to grow is the challenge of closing the loop. A concerted effort needs to be put forward to create extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies to facilitate the collection and proper recycling of lithium batteries. Perhaps the largest obstacle to efficient recycling is the lack of standardization. This lack of standardization goes beyond simply how the batteries are built and designed to the amount, grade, and composition of the materials themselves. Without strong policy, or industry cooperation, it is likely that companies will continue to adopt differing technologies, which could make it difficult to advance lithium-ion battery recycling. Right now relatively little legislation and few regulations exist. Such policies, however, cannot wait until the first generation of electric car batteries are retired. For the lithium-ion battery industry to advance sustainability, there is an urgent need to plan for end-of-life management now.
All maps created with amCharts.