A typical lithium mine will produce around 30,000 tonnes of the metal per year, which sounds like an awful lot, but if EV sales continue to soar we will need to discover and extract four mines’ worth per year to hit that million tonnes per year figure globally. The trouble is that it takes time to get mines set up and working, with up to seven years required according to some experts.
In the UK, the prediction is that we will need around 60,000 tonnes per year to satisfy battery production demand by 2035. This is eminently possible to fulfill if UK manufacturers pursue an aggressive enough strategy to secure supply, something which they’re currently lagging in doing.
According to Chris Berry, President of strategic metals advisory firm House Mountain Partners: “The dramatic pace of UK electric vehicle sales growth runs the risk of slowing without a clear pathway to additional supply of lithium and associated battery metals."
He added: "On top of sales, UK auto manufacturers risk being left behind by their Chinese, US, German, and Japanese auto peers who are in a race to ensure they have their electric supply chain in place for the rest of the decade.
Manufacturers like BMW are rapidly expanding their lithium supply chains, securing access to the metal in South America where it hopes to mine it in a sustainable fashion. Most of the lithium that goes into cars – and other applications like home power banks and e-bikes – in the UK comes from Australia and South America, but there’s huge competition from not only BMW, but other European car makers as well as those from China and the USA.
There are moves here in the UK to try and create some level of lithium independence, though. Cornish Lithium has discovered reserves in the West Country which can be pulled out the ground without a significant environmental penalty in amounts which would provide around a third of the 60,000 tonnes needed by 2035. At first, the firm will be using traditional open pit mines and should be operational by 2023, but it hopes to start greener extraction methods soon thereafter.
But it might be too little, too late to avoid a global lithium shortage by the middle of the decade. In that scenario, the UKs EV boom could be slowed by a simple lack of car supply, taking us back to the situation we had a few years ago when there were year-long waiting lists on certain EVs. Should that happen, consumers could be swayed to go back to, or stick with petrol or diesel – beating the 2030 ban on new sales.
Despite the gloom-mongering, it’s worth pointing out that industry has a knack of ‘pulling it out the bag’ when it needs to. Car makers, governments and the mining industry itself know how important supply is to support future low carbon economies so money and resource will be poured into getting things sorted if needs be.