Sustainable energy transition requires a global effort to balance the supply and demand of lithium

The forthcoming global energy transition requires a shift to new and renewable technologies. This transition increases the demand for related materials. Lithium (Li) is one of these critical materials, due to its irreplaceable role in batteries for electric vehicles and related demand as stationary storage.

Picture of traffic during night time

A recent research study by LUT University and University of Augsburg assesses the critical role of lithium in the global energy transition. The study analyses the supply and demand in the coming decades, and addresses policy gaps, which put the long-term sustainability, particularly of the transport sector, at risk.

The key results of the study were published in Nature Communications, a leading multi-disciplinary scientific journal.

"The present production trend of lithium batteries shows that in the short-term the supply and demand are well balanced. The sustainability of the long-term supply of lithium, however, and consequently maintaining the energy transition at high levels of electrification, particularly in the transport sector, is at risk. Lithium battery demand is the main driver of the observed deficit", says Solomon Asfaw, Post-doctoral researcher at LUT University.

Urgent need for battery recycling system

Asfaw continues that if the increase in the number of electric vehicles cannot be supported, significant climate targets in the transport sector are compromised. "There is an urgent need for an effective battery collection and recycling system to ensure the supply of lithium."

The once used lithium shall remain in full use in a circular economy. The transport sector is in the focus, as about 80% of all battery capacity demand is expected to be needed for transportation, while the remaining will be used for stationary storage needs.

The research group identified also other policy options to support the sustainable transition in the transport sector. Promoting research activities towards the achievement of lower lithium intensity (g/kWh) per battery capacity is one of these. Furthermore, incentives to develop new battery chemistries that can reduce lithium battery demand in the transport sector are also recommended.

"We should also find ways to substitute demand for batteries by developing sustainable transportation options that do not require batteries", contributes Christian Breyer, LUT Professor of Solar Economy and co-author of the study.

Such options could be more rail based public transport or car sharing schemes. Synthetic fuels cannot be considered as substitutes for batteries. That is due to substantial differences in relative system efficiencies. However, synthetic fuels are of high value in fields where batteries cannot be used, such as long-distance marine and aviation transportation.

On the consumer level, the choices that help in substituting the demand by sustainable solutions are done every day, but scaling needs policy support.

"Choosing public transport, sharing rides with colleagues – these are all our individual choices that reduce the dependence on private, light duty vehicles. We need incentives to support these choices in all parts of the globe", says Breyer.

The research indicates that lithium supply deficits can be avoided for the decades to come, even in a fully sustainable energy system. In the long term, however, additional chemistries are required to avoid a limitation in mobile and stationary battery storage.

Link to the open access publication: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-18402-y.pdf

Further information:

Solomon Asfaw, Post-doctoral researcher, LUT University, solomon.asfaw@lut.fi

Christian Breyer, Professor of Solar Economy, LUT University, christian.breyer@lut.fi, +358 504431929, @ChristianOnRE

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