Published on September 20th, 2011 | by Breath on the Wind


Selling a Bridge to Nowhere: NREL Lithium/Carbon Metric

September 20th, 2011 by  

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


Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

We share this World; its past, present resources and our combined future. With every aspiration, the very molecules we use for life are passed to others through time and space so that each of us may be considered a Breath on the Wind. This part of the world's consciousness lives in NYC; has worked in law, research, construction, engineering; has traveled, often drawn to Asia; writes on Energy and Electric Vehicle issues and looks forward to all your comments.   "If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect." -- Benjamin Franklin

  • Anonymous

    Lithium is very abundant. We could extract all the lithium we need for EV batteries from sea water and have only a small effect on EV price.

    There are all sorts of confusing issues with lithium. It’s called a “rare earth mineral” which has nothing to do with it being rare. What’s rare is that it is rarely found in large, easy to extract deposits.

    People get mislead by the terms ‘resources’ and ‘reserves’. Let me copy something over from Wiki…

    “Mineral occurrences or prospects of geological interest but not necessarily of economic interest

    Mineral resources that are potentially valuable, and for which reasonable prospects exist for eventual economic extraction.

    Mineral reserves or Ore reserves that are valuable and legally and economically and technically feasible to extract”

    Of course a new use of a mineral might mean a newer, higher value and that could move numbers from occurrences to resources. Those terms are fluid, based on demand.

    • Anonymous

      Lithium isn’t a rare earth; it’s an alkali metal.

Back to Top ↑