The Risks of Lithium Technology (Part 2)

In Part 1 we examined the history and engineering behind Lithium battery technology and drew comparisons between alternative technologies in use today. In part 2 we will explore the impacts of Lithium technology on society.

Economics at the Wheel

All too often, social hardship triggers technological innovation.  So, it’s no wonder that despite the current global economic turn down, many remain optimistic of emerging lithium ion technology as a fitting surrogate to wean us from our oil dependency and usher in an era of sustainability. Since being introduced to the market in the early 1990s, production of lithium ion batteries has increased 4-5% per year resulting in a 6 billion dollar market as of 2008 [305].  At the same time, the conventional lead acid battery market, driven primarily by the automotive sector, is estimated to be a staggering 40 billion dollar industry by comparison, of which lithium is poised to replace.
Consequently, while the lithium battery sector has been growing just to keep pace with current demand of consumer electronics, the addition of emerging markets; satellite, aviation, military, UPS or stationary energy storage systems, has created a lithium supply shortage [306], even before the emerging automotive sector is accounted for and could actually cause the price of electric vehicles to climb despite a rise in demand, making it less affordable for the majority of users. 

There are other shortfalls.  Dr. Ralph Brodd points out in his briefing Advanced Automotive Battery Investment Summit, 17 June 2008 in Chicago [305], that the current lithium battery market is based on a global economy and while the trend has opened many opportunities, it also creates some problems as companies often move factories from high labor cost countries like Canada and the United States, and build them instead in Asia or Mexico.  Such is the present case; the technology and manufacturing he argues are controlled oversees and bolstered by large investment, which the west has been unwilling to make. While manufacturers in the U.S. have managed to configure large lithium ion batteries for mass production and ensure they are long-lasting and safe, “the vehicles themselves are still too expensive for the average consumer without hefty government incentives and the troubled auto industry has yet to settle on which next-generation technologies (Li ion or Fuel Cell) will prevail in the market” according to the Times of India.[307]

Political Roadblocks

When considering the negative impact electric vehicles may have on the oil industry, a 46 billion dollar battery sector pales in comparison to the countless trillions oil producers stand to lose should lithium usurp its market.  How this might impact future political trends is difficult to determine given the slickery and suasiveness from the oil industry in the past. By the same token, increasing political tensions stemming from the Middle East, South America, and Asia with the United States, coupled with rising global dependency on oil continue to be a recurring theme, once again with lithium playing the role of the underdog caught in the crossfire of political and economic agendas.

We’ve been here before.  Let us not forget the oil crisis of 73 [308] spawned by political tensions in the Middle East which served as the precursor to the technological stagnation and demise of the electric car during the 80’s [309], due to the oil industry and bad politics as many suspect.  Perhaps it is a sign of rational thinking that oil companies like Exxon [310] are researching and patenting integral lithium battery components. Given their track record, perhaps it’s a lesson we should be mournful of.  Either way, it would serve society well to reign in the usual suspects before any crimes are perpetrated and countless resources fall by the waist side once again.

Towards these goals, new vehicle emission standards [311] like those recently implemented by Obama will likely be the impetuous of change needed for lithium battery stakeholders.  Analyst David Begleiter, of Deutsche Bank North America is confident of the lithium batteries success saying, "There is no question the long-term trend is toward lithium-based batteries, but it depends on what kind of demand there is," and ads, "It is clear to me that regulatory moves on fuel efficiency are going to help make electric cars a reality."

Moreover, Obama’s recent $790 billion economic stimulus legislation [312] contains tens of billions of dollars in incentives for advanced battery research and manufacturing in addition to incentives for electric vehicle research, infrastructure improvements to the electrical grid, and funding for renewable energy systems, all which could help create a market for these batteries. Resources have already begun to trickle down to the state level. New York’s governor Paterson more recently announced the creation of the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium (NY Best) [313] to position the state as a world leader of lithium battery manufacturing and other states like California, Maine, and Illinois are joining forces.

However, while new lithium technologies are being positioned in North America to dominate the market, geo-political tensions between Bolivia; where the bulk of global lithium deposits exist, and U.S. policy remain high.  Although, Evo Morales, Bolivia's president wants lithium mining and refinement to be state run and plans to use that money for health, education and fight poverty in the country, according to April Howard of Toward Freedom [314], "The current political situation in the country is acting as a strong disincentive for western mining companies to operate there" says William Tahil, Research Director of Meridian International Research [315], and warns that lithium-rich South America would become the new Middle East. "Concentration of supply would create new geopolitical tensions, not reduce them."

Social and Environmental Risks

Despite advances; the new lithium battery technology is not prone to overheating, does not lose charging capacity as time goes by, can charge in seconds instead of hours, allows for the development of smaller and lighter products, there are associated social risks unaccounted for. 

Production of this new battery does not stray far from the current process as MIT developer Gerbrand Ceder believes [315], and it would take only a few years to get the new lithium technology into the market.  Yet social impacts on South America and Bolivia in particular are still being debated, and it may already be too late to change course given the economic engines of progress are fueled up for the race to Bolivia’s lithium.  Moreover, South American governments have a history of corruption; leading to the probability that irreversible environmental damage to Bolivian land and communities due to the past 500 years of exploitive mining may continue unabated [316].

Furthermore, an alarming report from Meridian International Research confirms that “mass production of Lithium Carbonate will cause irreparable ecological damage to ecosystems” [317] and ads, “LiIon propulsion is incompatible with the notion of the Green Car". Vast areas of wilderness will have to be sacrificed to create settling ponds for the Lithium Carbonate mixture to vaporize.  Other concerns include the effects of the refining structures and processes on people and animals.  According to chemist Pedro Crespo Avizuri; “A key question is what to do with the mountains of magnesium we’ll make in the process” [316].  And this is just the tip of the iceberg as Lithium isn’t the only metal found in this new breed of batteries. 

Lithium batteries also contain cobalt, copper, nickel, iron, and a brew of polymers which according to the federal government; do not pose any hazardous risks to the environment.  Consequently, 2 billion lithium ion batteries are ending up in landfills and incinerators each year [318] despite Europe’s growing trend towards sustainability and the ever increasing demand for these materials.

Nonetheless, initiatives are underway in Canada and the U.S. to promote recycling. RBRC in Canada and the U.S. have been fundamental in establishing incentives for rechargeable power industry members to provide leadership and promote recycling, however, only 3 states in all of North America; California, Maine, and New York [319] have legislated mandatory recycling of cell phone and laptop batteries.  As a renewable yet finite material, lithium batteries and its constituent metals will likely find a growing market in capture and recovery sectors as future demands continue to out weight supplies.


A New Course of Action

While the future of lithium technology holds all the makings for a good detective story, there are clues that point to a possible ending. Lithium battery technology is already in transition to take over the consumer electronics market and the lion’s share of the lead acid sector. As a consequence, a lithium supply shortage is already occurring and analysts predict less affordable vehicles for the majority of buyers down the road should lithium ion supplant oil.  Nonetheless, emission control standards, financial incentives, and public awareness are helping to push lithium technology and make electric cars a reality in the U.S. and abroad.  Less evident, however, is the irreversible environmental damage to Bolivian land and communities or the notion that lithium is fundamentally incompatible with green technology.

Whether we choose to follow the breadcrumbs history provides or investigate new leads;  the politician, the banker, and that old antagonist - risk, might not always be central characters in a techno-thriller like this, but one fact remains that we should not lose sight of. The motive for any great detective story; someone always dies in the beginning. 

Society’s best intentions are often misguided and it isn’t until some catastrophic event that meaningful progress is deemed necessary.  The proof is in the words of the world’s greatest detective, Albert Einstein, who said, "The splitting of the atom has changed everything save man's mode of thinking, thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe”. [320] Let us hope that society can make better use of this technology and change its way of acting, if not it’s way of thinking before it is too late.



References

[301] Disclose. “Ancient Baghdad Battery ( IRAQ )” Nov. 2008: http://www.disclose.tv/action/viewvideo/12521/Ancient_Baghdad_Battery___IRAQ__/
[302] Hugh Chisholm, ed (1911). "Parthia". Encyclopaedia Britannica. 20. London: Cambridge University Press. pp. 871. http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/PAI_PAS/PARTHIA.html.
[303] The Leyden Jar Discovered — World Wide School
[304] Lewis F. Urry at Find A Grave
[305] Vidler. ”Advanced “Automotive Battery Brief” June 2008: http://www.viddler.com/explore/evworldeditor/videos/1/
[306] EVWorld, “The Trouble with Lithium” Dec. 2006: http://www.evworld.com/library/lithium_shortage.pdf
[307] The Times of India. “US firm unveils new battery technology for electric cars“ May 2009: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Health--Science/Science/US-firm-unveils-new-battery-technology-for-electric-cars/articleshow/4527860.cms
[308] http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/dr/96057.htm Second Arab Oil Embargo, 1973-1974
[309] Google video. “Who Killed the electric Car” Feb. 2007: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6437080948273722203
[310]Futurepundit. “New Exxon Mobil Film For Lithium Ion Car Batteries” Nov. 2007: http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/004825.html
[311] The Guardian. “The lithium boom is coming: The new bubble?” May 2009: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/feedarticle/8521396
[312]Technology Review. ” Stimulus Big Winner: Battery Manufacturing” Feb. 2009: http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/22188/
[313] New York State Governors Office. “GOVERNOR PATERSON ANNOUNCES CREATION OF THE NEW YORK BATTERY AND ENERGY STORAGE TECHNOLOGY CONSORTIUM (NY BEST)” May 2009: http://www.state.ny.us/governor/press/press_0505094.html
[314] Toward Freedom. “The Battle Over Bolivia’s Lithium and the Future of Energy“ May 2009: http://towardfreedom.com/home/content/view/1582/1/
[315] PCMag. “Quck-Charging Li-Ion Batteries Could Appear Soon” Dec. 2009: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2342919,00.asp
[316] In These Times. “Salt of the Earth” May 2009: http://inthesetimes.com/article/4360/salt_of_the_earth
[317] Meridian International Research. “The Trouble with Lithium 2” May 2008: http://www.meridian-int-res.com/Projects/Lithium_Microscope.pdf
[318] St. Cloude State. “Lithium Mining and Processing” http://studentweb.stcloudstate.edu/lipa0401/Lithium..pdf
[319] RBRC. “Recycling Laws” http://www.rbrc.org/community/recycling_laws.shtml
[320] CyberWorld “FamousQuotes” http://www.garrydavis.org/p_quotes.html

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