Oil is a dirty word. It’s foreign and expensive and pollutes the air and the water; and those bastards at Exxon are profiting from selling us that filthy liquid. Damn them for selling a product we all buy. Point is, there’s money to be made in personal transport. It doesn’t matter if it’s oil or hydrogen or electricity fueling our movement, something will always be there to fill the gap and get us around. Right now, it’s starting to look like lithium-ion batteries may fill that gap, at least for a little while. They have one of the best efficiency to weight ratios of any battery technology so far, so we’ll probably see a lot more of them in the future.
Lithium batteries already power most mobile devices and laptops since they’re so light, and the comparatively underpowered electric cars need a fairly lightweight power source. But if electric cars become as widespread as gas-powered cars are now, or even a fraction as widespread, does the world have enough lithium to keep up? And where is it all coming from?
Most of the lithium in the world is coming from, and will probably continue to come from, South America. Lithium is extracted mostly from a salt flats, which are dried salt ponds, located in places like Chile and possibly Bolivia. As for whether the world has enough lithium, that answer isn’t as cut and dry. There are two very polarized schools of thought on this issue.
One side says we’re just fine, that lithium supplies are abundant enough for all the cars and electronic devices we’ll make, especially since there are completely untapped salt flats and resources in Bolivia. The other side says we haven’t got much more time on the lithium train. Some estimate from that side say there’s only enough lithium for 1.5 million Chevy Volt-type cars by 2015. And on top of that, some say the environmental damage done to the ecosystems around these salt flats could be as bad as anything done from oil drilling. That point calls into question the whole electric car industry… why should we switch to a less powerful, smaller electric car if the environmental impact isn’t really that much different than a car with an internal combustion engine? AMIRITE?
The market is notoriously difficult to predict. Millions of difference factors could change, throwing even the most conservative estimates out of whack. So we can just go forward, and see what happens. Lithium-ion batteries may just be a temporary fix, filling in the gap until a truly sustainable technology is developed, like solar or algae powered cars or some weird technology we can’t even imagine right now.