Lithium is the most energy efficient metal used for batteries in the world. The reason for this is that lithium has the highest energy density of any metal and it is also the lightest metal in existence. Without lithium the wave of new electric cars entering the mainstream car market, such as the Volt and the Leaf, might not be happening today.
The market for lithium ion car batteries is expanding exponentially, essentially because all electrical devices need to be able to hold an electric charge, assuming that the device can’t be connected to a power source. Since it would be impractical for all electric cars to have to be attached to extremely long extension cords in order to function, a reliable method of energy storage had to be developed. The lithium ion battery is that method. That is why several new hybrid and electric cars in production today employee the use of a lithium-ion battery. But why are the new batteries made of lithium instead of some other material? Is lithium really better? Why?
Lithium is cheep.
The problem with most alternative fuel sources is that they are uneconomical. They simply can't yet compete with traditional fuel sources on a cost basis. However Lithium is cheep, and will remain cheep for the foreseeable future. The reason this amazing metal is so inexpensive, is that supply greatly outstrips demand. Even if demand for lithium increases more than expected it will continue to remain quite cheep. The primary reason that the supply of lithium is so much greater than the demand, is that lithium is only just beginning to be mined and used on a large scale. That means all of the easy to reach lithium is still untapped, helping to lead to the low cost of the final product. The same would be true if we were beginning to drill for oil today instead of over 100 years ago. The easy to reach oil would be untapped and therefore cheep. But Lithium is different than oil in several different ways. One way that lithium differs from oil is that...
Lithium is green!
Like other batteries, lithium produces no emissions when being used. When you observe any battery as it is supplying electricity to a device you will not observe smoke, smog, or any other emission. This is because the reaction is occurring within the battery while creating no pollutants. The only time that a lithium battery could cause environmental damage is during an acid leak. An acid leak often occurs as a result of improper battery disposal, with the end result being a battery that is leaking acid into a landfill. Technology advances enable lithium to now be recycled fairly inexpensively, resulting in fewer batteries in landfills.
The mining process for lithium is very environmentally friendly, relative to the mining of other materials. Unlike fracking, the process used in mining natural gas, no unnatural chemicals are used in the mining of lithium. Water is the primary chemical used in the mining process. Overall, the mining of lithium is a low impact process.
Lithium is sustainable.
Although lithium is currently so cheep that it is cheeper to mine new lithium than to recycle it, this won't always be the case. Batteries for the millions of electric cars that will be on the roads in the coming decades will need to be recycled, and fortunately there are already lithium battery recycling plants in existence and more are being built. When a lithium battery is recycled all of the lithium is extracted from the battery and can be reused in a new battery while providing the same power output as freshlly extracted lithium. So unlike oil and gas, the world lithium supply can not be completely consumed or "used up".
Lithium is getting even better.
The very first lithium battery was produced for commercial use in small electronics in 1991. The battery was not rechargeable, and of corse, it was nowhere near as large and as powerful as a car battery. The Chevy Volt’s lithium ion battery can power the car over 50 miles on a single charge, and some concept cars can even go over 100 miles on a single charge! The end potential dose not seem to be in sight as engineers and scientists create better cars as well as batteries to accompany them.
Lithium is not the only material that will power a greener future, but by simply observing the trends of today, it appears that lithium is and will continue to be a vital aspect of our energy mix.