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Study outlines supply chain challenges for lithium future

As demand increases for lithium, the essential element in batteries for everything from cameras to automobiles, a researcher at Missouri University of Science and Technology is studying potential disruptions to the long-term supply chain the world’s lightest metal.

Although the current dominant battery type for hybrid electric vehicles is nickel metal hydride, lithium-ion battery technology is considered by many to be the “power source of choice for sustainable transport,” says Ona Egbue, a doctoral student in engineering management.

“Lithium batteries are top choices for high-performance rechargeable battery packs,” Egbue says. “Batteries make up 23 percent of lithium use and are the fastest growing end use of lithium.”

With nearly a dozen different kinds of electric vehicles on U.S. roads this year, more drivers are getting behind the wheel of vehicles powered by advanced lithium power packs.

“A combination of high fuel costs, concerns about petroleum availability and air quality issues related to fossil fuel-based vehicles are driving interest in electric vehicles,” says Egbue. “However, there are issues associated with the present supply chain of raw materials for battery production, particularly the security and supply of lithium.”

The U.S. is a major importer of lithium. The majority of known lithium reserves are located in China, Chile, Argentina and Australia. Together these regions were also responsible for more than 90 percent of all lithium production in 2010, not including U.S. production.

“More than 90 percent of lithium reserves – what is economically feasible to extract – are in just four countries,” Egbue says. “The geopolitical dynamics of this distribution of lithium supplies has largely been ignored.”


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