Why is lithium important for humanity’s sustainable future?

This text is the first part of a series of reports on lithium and the electrification of transport; learn more at the bottom of the page.

  • Electric cars are expected to replace fossil fuel vehicles in the near future
  • In Brazil, trams represent about 1% of the total vehicle fleet
  • Lithium is a metal that has physical properties that make it essential for current vehicle batteries.

Electric cars are here to stay. Despite being one of the main bets for a future in which humanity can generate less pollution, electric vehicles also have their environmental cost: the growing demands for ores and metals such as lithium, essential for the current batteries that power these cars. .

Cities tend to become increasingly dependent on electricity, which should increase the demand for lithium for the manufacture of batteries (illustration: TecMundo)

Lithium is already present in phone and computer batteries, but rising sales of electric cars, which use larger batteries, are expected to cause demand for lithium to increase more than 40-fold by the year 2040, according to a report published in May 2021 by the IEA (International Energy Agency).

“Request [pelo lítio] will grow a lot in the near future; there is no doubt that this will happen. It is very likely that new mines will be opened to account for the increase in metal production,” says mining engineer Luis Enrique Sánchez, a professor at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP).

The UK car market scenario in the year 2020 can indicate the future in poorer countries. That year, pure electric or hybrid electric — vehicles that run on electricity and fossil fuels — accounted for more than 10% of new car registrations in the country, according to data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders of the United Kingdom (SMMT) published in beginning of 2021.

If currently electric vehicles (hybrid or all-electric) account for 1 in 10 new car registrations in the UK, in 2019, only 1 in 30 cars sold was electric. In 2020, demand for all-electric cars (battery electric vehicles, or BEVs) grew by nearly 186%, according to SMMT.

Eletric carsElectric cars at charging station (credit: Shutterstock)

Electric cars also benefit from pressure from governments to increase sales in the search for a reduction in polluting gases emitted by the burning of fossil fuels. At the end of 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that, there, the end of sales of vehicles powered by petroleum products, such as gasoline and diesel, should happen in the year 2030. Other countries have determined similar actions. .

The European Union has proposed ending sales of new gasoline and diesel cars by the year 2035. US President Joe Biden’s goal was less audacious, but it should still have a huge impact on the US car market. United States: The goal is for electric cars to account for 50% of total vehicle sales by the year 2030.

What is the electric car scenario in Brazil?

In Brazil, electric vehicles represent about 1% of the total vehicle fleet. But this picture could change in the coming years. Data from ABVE (Brazilian Electric Vehicle Association) show that more than 27,000 electric cars were sold in the country between January and October 2021 — 74% more than sales in the same period in the previous year.

“In the last ten years the price of batteries has dropped by 90%; from 2025 onwards it will be even cheaper to use an electric car”, (Adalberto Maluf, Marketing and Sustainability director at BYD in Brazil and president of ABVE – Associação Brasileira do Veículo Electric)

The models still have high prices here, one of the biggest barriers to expanding sales — the cheapest 100% electric, the E-JS1 from JAC Motors, starts at R$164,900, according to the company’s page in January 2021. The car has a range of 300 km, says JAC.

According to Adalberto Maluf, Marketing and Sustainability director at BYD in Brazil, a Chinese company that is one of the leaders in the electric vehicle and solar panel sector, prices tend to fall in the coming years.

According to Maluf, who is also the current president of ABVE, today the battery of an electric car is responsible for approximately 40% of the total cost of the product. “But in the last ten years the price of batteries has dropped by 90%; from 2025 it will be even cheaper to use an electric car”, he says.

BYD has a unit in Manaus that assembles lithium batteries for electric buses. According to Maluf, in 2022 the lightest electric cars from the Chinese giant should start being sold in Brazil.

Why lithium?

Lithium is the lightest metal on the periodic table, and it was discovered with a little help from an illustrious Brazilian: José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva.

Best known for his political activities, Andrada e Silva was also a naturalist, and it was thanks to minerals found for the first time by him (petalite and spodumene), during a scientific trip through Europe carried out at the end of the 18th century, which, in 1818, Swedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson discovered lithium, contained in such minerals.

“Lithium has almost half the density of water and a high specific heat, which makes it useful for the production of very heat-resistant glass, for example,” says geologist Ioná Cunha, head of the Division of Special Projects and Strategic Minerals. of the Geological Survey Brazil (SGB/CPRM).

The applications of the metal are many; In addition to being used to build stronger glass, it is used to make lubricants, greases and medicines, but it is in batteries that lithium has its most exploited potential — it is estimated that between 70% and 80% of all lithium used by industry in the world goes to batteries.

“The main feature is the high electrochemical potential, the highest of all metals. Combining this attribute with low density, lithium is capable of storing a lot of energy in small volumes. In the short term, he doesn’t have a replacement”, says chemical engineer Paulo Braga, researcher and deputy director of the Mineral Technology Center (Cetem), linked to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI).

Lithium is never found in pure form in nature, explains Cunha. It is obtained from a mineral deposit, the type that exists in Brazil and Australia (currently the country that produces the most metal in the world), or brine, more common in countries like Chile and Bolivia.

Once extracted from the reserve, the metal is processed to become lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, the main ways in which it is used in industry, says the geologist.

LithiumLithium processing plant located in Western Australia (credit: Shutterstock)

Since the emergence of portable cell phones in the 1990s, batteries have been on the way to becoming ubiquitous. Today, it is almost impossible to imagine life without them. You only have to look around to see that appliances large and small depend on some mobile reserve of electricity to run away from the outlet.

This revolution in portable equipment is closely linked to the development of lithium batteries, capable of storing more energy than previous technologies and of being recharged faster. Lithium batteries emerged to replace older nickel-cadmium and lead-acid reservoirs, which had smaller capacities.

There are several types of lithium batteries that use different technologies to work. “But in all of them lithium is essential, it is through it that the reactions to store energy will take place”, says Maria de Fátima Rosolem, chemist and researcher at the Center for Research and Development in Telecommunications (CPQD).

lithiumCredit: TecMundo

Lithium can be used in one or more parts of batteries and represents about 3% of the total weight of the part, according to Rosolem. In the case of vehicles, the researcher explains that batteries can contain thousands of small cells, where reactions occur, connected in series or parallel.

To get to the current format, it was necessary to circumvent security issues to avoid the risk of explosions. Rosolem says that the solution came with an electronic control that made the battery more stable by making it work in the safe range of voltage and temperature; the control is also capable of equalizing the energy imbalance between the cells, providing greater durability to the part.

The new chapter in the history of the relationship between lithium and humanity has already begun to be written. Having mastered the technology that made electronic equipment an essential part of contemporary life, now is the time to look ahead and face the question of demand for metal.

“Today lithium is already considered a critical metal due to its importance in high technology applications. But we need more research and development to improve our ability to meet this demand, which will only grow”, concludes Ioná Cunha, from CPRM.

We know that there is lithium in Brazil, and some national and foreign companies have intensified their operations in the national territory with an eye on the growing demand; but there are still doubts about the country’s potential to become relevant in this market.

This work was possible thanks to a grant for the production of journalistic works on science topics, which was granted by Fundación Gabo and Instituto Serrapilheira, with the support of the UNESCO Regional Science Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Read the other texts in the series

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