US Cranks Up Lithium Production For EV Batteries

Lithium, an important element in the cleantech revolution, isn’t at critical supply risk, unlike several rare earth elements – dysprosium, europium, terbium and others.

But looking beyond 2015 that could begin to shift, the U.S. Department of Energy believes. And all things considered, the Obama administration would like to have plenty of the material home grown, feeding what it hopes will be a burgeoning electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid market and their batteries that use lithium.

lithium rockwood doe

Nevada Iithium operation. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, the administration’s investment – with $28.4 million from the Recovery Act – in growing two Rockwood Lithium operations, at its headquarters in Kings Mountain, N.C., and in Silver Peak, Nev., where it produces lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide from brines.

Last week, the DOE hailed the completion of the North Carolina expansion.

“With support from the Energy Department, this project will make America more competitive in a range of new technologies and will help ensure the United States leads once again in manufacturing the next generation of clean energy and advanced vehicle technologies,” DOE Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.

So what’s the big deal with lithium?

According to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report [PDF], “Lithium is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element,” and its “high electrochemical potential makes it a valuable component of high energy-density rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.”

The report notes that “there is concern that the demand for battery metals could increase, possibly to the point at which a shortage of these metals will occur. Lithium is of particular interest because it is the least likely of the battery metals to be replaced by substitution because it has the highest charge-to-weight ratio, which is desired for batteries in transportation applications.”

Driving that new demand – the Obama administration sorely hopes – could be electrics and hybrids. Until just recently, hybrids and the emerging electric vehicles relied on nickel-metal-hydride batteries. But lithium batteries are increasingly favored over NiMH batteries, which are big and heavy, expensive and take longer to charge.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.