Rising Lithium Prices Risk Pushing EV Dreams Off The Road
As demand for electric vehicles grows amid a push for a ‘greener’ economy, carmakers globally are grappling with rising prices of everything from semiconductor chips to copper and aluminum. Now the expense of lithium, a metal found in every commercial electric battery, is starting to bite as a lack of mining capacity strains supplies.
Experts say it is likely to get worse and more investment in production is needed to meet electric vehicle supply chain needs.
While alternatives such as sodium exist, they are some years away from mass manufacture and demand will only grow. New mines take years to develop, while countries are promising to stop the sale of petrol and diesel engines – in Britain’s case by 2030.
Pricing and analysis firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence estimates lithium carbonate prices could push up the production costs of electric batteries, especially mass-market models, by 16pc or more.
Lithium carbonate, which is often used to make cheaper electric cars, is up 289pc so far this year to about $24,000 per tonne, while lithium hydroxide, used in longer-range motors, is up 192pc to about $26,000 per tonne, according to figures from Benchmark.
“I think it’ll go higher,” says chief executive Simon Moores. “Long-term lithium demand is locked in; the question is how much you get out of the ground and into EVs as quickly as possible.”
Among the two, lithium carbonate is starting to be more widely used by electric vehicle makers, making its rising costs a headache.
It is used to make lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries that do not need cobalt, an element found largely in The Democratic Republic of Congo where mining is tainted by accusations of human rights abuse. The batteries are also considered to be safer, albeit with a shorter range.
Tesla told customers in October to expect more LFP batteries in its standard-range models.
Demand is being driven in China, Tesla’s fastest-growing market and home to one of its Gigafactories in Shanghai. It comes as the Asian nation tries to clean up its carbon act and push ahead with homegrown electric cars from the likes of Nio and Xpeng.
Carmakers worldwide are lining up to commit billions of pounds to electrify their fleets, and all will need thousands of tons of lithium.
In July Fiat and Vauxhall owner Stellantis committed £26bn to electric vehicles and software developments in the next four years, while Nissan pledged £13bn last week to a program that will see it decarbonize by 2050.
A limiting factor for battery makers is that while a Gigafactory can be built in a couple of years, it will immediately need a source of the metal. A new mine, however, requires five to seven years before production can begin.
The mine must also produce a certain quality of the commodity, which can slow things down further, according to Benchmark’s Moores.
Australia is currently the biggest producer, having mined almost half the world’s lithium in 2020, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), while second-in-line Chile holds the largest reserves.
China, a top 10 producer and with the fifth most reserves, owns many of the processors that turn the metal into batteries.
While lithium is not scarce – more reserves are being found as exploration grows – the capacity to pull it out of the ground is limited.
China, a top 10 producer and with the fifth most reserves, owns many of the processors that turn the metal into batteries. More than 70pc of the mined metal goes towards being used in batteries, the USGS noted.
And as its price rises, the portion of a car’s cost from lithium has gone from 1.5pc to 4pc since the start of the year, according to Moores.
So far, consumers are being cushioned from the metal’s price rises. As carmakers’ margins become more squeezed, however, buyers may end up absorbing the extra expense in the coming months.
This is because many carmakers have signed long-term deals with battery makers and lithium processing companies but not at a fixed price, says Scott Yarham, head of battery metals pricing at S&P Global Platts.
“Their involvement with lithium hedging is still in its infancy—and the same applies to all other stages of the supply chain, which still didn’t embrace hedging for the most part,” he said.
Rising lithium, however, isn’t the only worry. Andrew Bergbaum, a partner and car expert at consulting firm AlixPartners, says its swing in price is symptomatic of a broader problem carmakers face as other components suffer price jumps and supply droughts. Copper and aluminum, for instance, reached 10-year highs in the spring.
“While lithium price hikes are likely to impact car prices to some degree, there is a much bigger concern at play here,” he says.
“The battery of an electric vehicle only contains around 40-60kg of lithium, but the price hikes that we’re seeing across a broader range of materials could send the cost of a car soaring by thousands.
“It has never been more important for manufacturers to be able to pivot rapidly in the face of disruption and for the industry as a whole to find new ways to innovate.”
While lithium dominates today’s car batteries, it is far from the only solution. Sodium, found in seawater, could eventually ease the car industry’s reliance on its fellow metal.
Sodium technology could be about up to seven years from mass production and could replace lithium-based batteries for cheaper cars, says Prof David Greenwood, a battery development expert at the University of Warwick, although this depends on how much is spent on its development.
“From our perspective, we think we see sodium ion as being a chemistry that the UK could do pretty well at, but which isn’t quite ready for mass production yet,” he says.
“Lithium mining is confined to certain geographies. Sodium isn’t, it’s way cheaper, is much more sustainable, and it doesn’t have the geopolitics around it” since anyone can obtain it.
Prof Greenwood adds, however, that lithium is likely to come up trumps in the making of premium long-range vehicles.
But until a viable alternative is produced to ease constraints or miners dig more out of the ground, the price of lithium looks set on rising.
With demand moving in the same direction, carmakers’ electric dreams risk veering off track.