Selling a Bridge to Nowhere: NREL Lithium/Carbon Metric

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Back in 2003, for those who know the history of the second coming of electric cars, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was convinced to rewrite the definition of zero emission vehicles to include hybrids. About the same time, Chevron was suing everyone to keep the nickel-metal-hydride battery out of electric vehicles. However, they became the standard for hybrids. The movie “Who Killed the Electric Car” may have been inconclusive but attention did shift to hybrids, which continue to use gasoline, as the EV was crushed.

With this in mind, I have been rather surprised to find a number of recent articles promoting hybrids over battery electric vehicles due to lithium usage. A NREL study concludes lithium is used more sparingly in hybrid cars per pound of carbon saved than in an EV. Bill Moore of EV world gives us: “Hybrids: The Best Use for Lithium.” At Alternative Energy Stocks they are of two minds when it comes to an EV, with Tom Konrad taking a slightly more pro EV perspective than his colleague John Peterson.


There are several ways to look at this information and it may be too easy to draw inaccurate conclusions. Is the NREL study inaccurate? We might ask if lithium is a scarce resource, and then, if using lithium is the only means to achieve the lower carbon goal? We might ask if saving carbon is the only reason for advocating electric cars. We could simply ask who would promote this point of view. Does the NREL study tell us we should pursue hybrid technology over a vehicle that only operates on batteries?

NREL Study Scope

As with any study, the NREL information is narrowly focused. It weighs two variables: the amount of lithium used and the amount of carbon offset. Is the data inaccurate? A casual review of the study can’t give us this information. To save time and effort, we can assume for now that the study is accurate and look at what it says and the conclusions..

Scarcity of Resources

Gasoline is a combination of elements. We are concerned about gasoline becoming scarce because energy is stored in the bonds between its elements. The elements themselves don’t disappear, they just form new relationships at a lower energy level. It is actually the energy we are concerned with losing and not the elements.

Lithium is an Element

It doesn’t possess chemical energy by itself, but we can store electrical energy by using it in a battery. So while we store gasoline in a relatively cheap fuel tank. Lithium is the fuel tank into which we “pour” the fuel, electricity. It is constantly reused, and when the battery is no longer as useful as a container, we can recover the elements.

Alternatives to Lithium

There are two facts not mentioned in the NREL study. Lithium is not the only possible battery chemistry. Because its maximum storage capacity is less, our ultimate goal is that we will, within 5 years, be looking at a different chemistry like Zinc-Air that offers even more potential. There are also studies that suggest the cheapest path to vehicle electrification would be to use wireless technology in electrified roadways. Such a system would give unlimited range with no need to recharge a vehicle and no concerns about recharging times.

How Much Lithium?

The NREL study projects lithium usage out for 50 years (as if technology will remain static) yet concludes that we have enough lithium to meet the needs of Lithium batteries worldwide. As an exercise, we could ask if we have enough lithium to bring us, within 5 years, to an even more advanced energy storage. Within 4 years, the present administration proposes to have 1 million electric vehicles on the roads, including hybrids. Some suggest that that this may be more practical within 5 years. The Nissan Leaf battery uses about 9# of lithium. We would theoretically need about 9 million pounds of lithium over 5 years, or about 4500 tonnes. We presently produce about 25,000 tonnes each year and about 25% of that is used for batteries. Plenty of lithium.

Is Carbon Our Only Concern?

We have explored the use of petrol vehicles for over 100 years. The use and options with this transportation are widely known. All electric vehicles are like a key that unlocks options we need. An EV is the most efficient vehicle. The vehicles will be charged primarily at night. This time shifts our power usage and makes our grid more efficient. Battery electric vehicles can be used for backup power and might be even more cheaply powered using solar panels. Such vehicles lead to a decentralization of power. This, in turn, provides security not only from foreign energy supplies but from growing debt, inflation, and interest rates.

A bridge to nowhere

What does this study actually do? What action does it advocate? If lithium were scarce to the point of rationing, I might remotely understand the purpose of such a study. If the adoption of battery electric vehicles were not so useful a public policy, we might question our course of action for that reason. Rather, the study only looks like something of substance. It might be useful if some unusual conditions were to arise, but its conclusions are empty as the initial condition is not met. As such, the study, or at least its use, begins to look like a bridge to nowhere.

Bridge photo via cyanocorax
Return on lithium graphic via NREL powerpoint


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