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OM in the News: Everything You Should Know About Lithium

April 20, 2017

Lithium is neither cheap nor easy to mine at this Nevada site

Lithium: “a metal crucial to what bankers, regulators, and clean-energy advocates see as the imminent transformation of the transportation sector and the electric grid,” writes Businessweek (April 3-9, 2017).

The lightest metal on the periodic table of the elements and a superb conductor, it’s what gives the lithium ion batteries in our cell phones, laptops, Priuses, and Teslas the ability to recharge more times, last longer, and provide more energy per weight or volume than other battery chemistries. (The lithium in a Tesla costs around $500). It’s also what makes devices explode if their battery-management systems aren’t working properly, as in many hoverboards or Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7.

How is lithium changing transportation? Chinese battery and auto manufacturer BYD just build its first American bus factory near LA. The buses are lithium-intensive; each uses about 8 times as much as an average electric vehicle, which in turn uses about 10,000 times as much as an iPhone. The vehicles are more expensive than ones that run on diesel or natural gas, but only initially. After 3 to 5 years, customers save $50,000 to $75,000 per year per bus on fuel and maintenance.

In Shenzhen, 20 miles north of Hong Kong, thousands of electric buses draw wind power from the grid overnight, when residential and business customers aren’t using it, and then disperse it during the day as they drive around the city. A shift toward electric vehicles is under way in Europe, as well. BMW and Daimler have each invested hundreds of millions of dollars in electrifying their fleets, moves that help drive the European Union’s policies. And China’s broader electric auto market will soon dwarf them all. Although electric vehicle adoption has been slower in the U.S. than expected, the price of battery packs has been dropping fast, to the point that electric cars are poised to become cost-competitive with gas-powered vehicles.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why is lithium so important in manufacturing?
  2. Lithium prices have increased from $4,000 per metric ton in 2014 to $20,000 today. Why?
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