EDITOR: | September 21st, 2015 | 21 Comments

Battery 101: Why Lithium?

| September 21, 2015 | 21 Comments

electric-car-battery-2I don’t understand what’s happening in the lithium industry.

For another article involving a lithium company (Nemaska Lithium), I did a fair bit of research into the lithium mining industry. How is a lithium deposit found? How is lithium processed and separated from the host ore? What makes a deposit economic? Global reserves? Uses? Total annual consumption? Energy efficiencies? How much lithium goes into the rechargeable battery on my Ryobi nailgun?

The answers make me wonder why the battery industry is supporting lithium and graphite technologies at all.

Unlike graphite, lithium is an element on the periodic table, checking in at atomic number 3 between helium and beryllium. Like graphite, lithium has been pursued as a key component in batteries, with the electric vehicle industry as the main target market.

Let’s start with Battery101. A battery is hardware that stores electrical energy in chemical form. A battery can hold one or more cells, with the cell being the actual working chemical unit inside the battery. A functional cell requires only four parts: a positive electrode, a negative electrode, some chemical to keep them separate (the electrolyte), and something to house it all in. Connecting a battery to a circuit causes a chemical reaction in the electrolyte, flowing ions through it one way and electrons around the outer circuit.

This flow is what makes “electrical current” in the cell.

There are two kinds of batteries, namely, disposable and re-chargeable. When you charge your smartphone on its rechargeable battery, you’re reversing the current and bringing an electrical charge into the battery. Disposable batteries can’t do this.

Batteries are made from a variety of metals and electrolytes. There are alkaline batteries (containing manganese dioxide and zinc), button cells for hearing aids and watches (zinc, mercury oxide and graphite), nickel cadmium rechargeable batteries, and of course lithium ion batteries. None of these is environmentally friendly.

In lithium ion batteries, the positive electrode is lithium and the negative one is graphite. When the lithium is ionized, the electrical current is created.

There’s a great article here that explains in simple science how a lithium ion battery charges, discharges and re-charges.

For the rest of this article assume we’re talking about batteries for the electric vehicle market.

Since you have to take your fuel with you (fill up your car with gasoline, or recharge the battery, or in the days of steam trains load the coal bin), what you want is a process / technology that delivers more chemical energy with less mass. Gasoline and diesel are still the highest density deliverers of energy when compared to their mass.

My concern about lithium begins with this chart from Adrian Nixon:

Energy Density

See gasoline and diesel as still being the two most energy dense fuels. Then look to the far right end of the chart. Lithium and graphite have an extremely low energy density, which means you have to carry a lot of them to create the electrical flow required to power the vehicle. That means more batteries to add to the overall mass of the vehicle and require more power to carry the batteries to hold the lithium and graphite, which adds to the need for more batteries on the vehicle, which adds to the mass, and so it goes. It isn’t a “green” solution to keep adding more batteries to yield the same power as could be had from a smaller mass of gasoline.

Mr. Nixon’s book “Diesal?” can be bought through Amazon and he’s available at his website.

If lithium is this inefficient, why is it being pursued as “the answer”? Tesla Motors seems to believe in lithium, but it’s hard to take Tesla’s business judgment seriously when it has no plan to address its staggering wall of debt coming due in the next few years. Tesla wants you to think it’s Apple but it’s looking more like this generation’s Nortel.

I was a guest at the Ring of Fire golf tournament this past weekend (thank you, GTA Resources, Ken Adderson and Howard House). Because of a rain delay there was ample opportunity to speak with representatives of companies active in and around the Ring. I asked some of them about this graphite / lithium energy imbalance. No one there was surprised by this, and in fact everyone seemed to know about it, even the reps of the graphite companies.

So, if lithium and graphite fare so poorly in the energy density to mass game, why are they the apparent front runners in the electric vehicle market?

The answers I’ve received range from “I don’t know”, “it’s the best of what’s out there”, and “lithium is the greenest of the choices in front of us”. That last explanation is a lot like being the best hockey player in Ecuador.

This issue bothers me. If lithium is the clear winner, there should be clear metrics why it’s a better positive electrode than any other metal. So it must be easier to find as a resource? Well, no, it’s not. Is it easier to extract once found? No. Easier to process? No. Abundant? No. Short supply response? No.

So why lithium?

I don’t have an answer to this yet but I do plan on attending the Technology Metals Conference in Toronto on October 14th towards gaining more insight.


Mr. Clausi is an experienced investment banker, executive, director and shareholder activist. A graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School called to Ontario's bar in 1990, ... <Read more about Peter Clausi>

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  • Tracy Weslosky

    Thanks Peter. I wish that Adrian Nixon could join us, but note that Nemaska Lithium will be there. Sue Glover says she has some surprises she is working on from the battery space and we will have a panel on “Technology Metals in the Electric Vehicle Race” — as well as a panel on “Renewable Energy Storage: The New Industrial Revolution”. Great column, please go to http://www.TechnologyMetals.com or email Sue@InvestorIntel.com for more information.

    September 21, 2015 - 11:37 AM

  • Pennie

    Not to mention the drawdown on (usually) coal powered electricity for the battery charge

    September 21, 2015 - 6:27 PM

  • Paul Krueger

    Using an electric source (battery) allows you to remove the heavy motor, drive train, exhaust and other elements of internal combustion travel.

    Replace that weight with batteries, and you have a start.

    Yes, energy density is better for chemical reactions where fuel is burnt. Energy density is important for a transportation machine, as it allows you to travel a greater distance, with less weight.

    So if 60 L of fuel (16 gallons) of fuel is reasonable for a small family car, weighing 1000kg (~6% of weight) you have to increase that greatly in an electric car (I believe the model S has about 550kg of batteries).

    The Tesla S weighs about 2000kg, so 25% of its weight is battery, and it still gets less range than an economical small car (but perhaps not a sports/super car).

    Weight is most important in energy terms when accelerating. A car twice as heavy takes twice the energy to accelerate. When you brake, all that energy is lost, which is why range is less in cities, and best when cruising. However, with it’s regenerative braking the Tesla reclaims much of that energy when braking, improving it in a way that a petrol car can not match, where all the energy is lost to heat.

    Energy density is important, but so is cost. Lithium batteries can be recycled, and the energy does not have to cause climate change, and is cheaper then gasoline, even if you do not put a value on the pollution caused by burning fuel.

    BTW Lithium weighs half that of water. Since weight is important, and not volume, your graph would be more representative if it was in MJ/KG, not MJ/L

    September 21, 2015 - 8:43 PM

  • Tom

    Yes Peter, let’s keep burning fossil fuels while the world is suffocating. Have you not taken time to acquaint yourself the water level currently in the streets of Miami, FL during high tide or the air pollution in China’s capital or anything else related to climate change or do you simply mimic Rush Limbaugh (USA reactionary radio talking head) on this subject? Personal opinion, but Peter I strongly reject what I view as the naivety of your point of view as suggested in this posting; and while at it, Tracy, I love what you have done with Investotintel.com and I always follow you as I respect your opinion very much but by thanking Peter for THIS (one) article, I believe you to be on the wrong side of human survival in this case.

    September 21, 2015 - 8:59 PM

  • Peter Clausi

    Hi, Tom. Sorry you’re annoyed. The point of the article isn’t to support petroleum products but to question why lithium is the Chosen One. No one has yet been able to give me a solid answer to that question.

    September 21, 2015 - 9:27 PM

  • Tom

    Hi, Peter … how about comparing the carbon footprint of lithium to that of petroleum based fuels and assume that the results have something to do with “the choice” that you question.

    September 21, 2015 - 10:37 PM

  • Nicolas


    Perhaps the reason is the cost of manufacturing LIBs which is the dominant technology when it comes to rechargeable batteries? They may not have a great energy density but they’re good enough to allow for a very respective range in electric cars (I believe Teslas can do about 300 miles on a single charge can they?). At this point, it’s the manufacturing cost that matters the most and it will continue to come down significantly for LIBs.

    September 22, 2015 - 8:24 AM

  • alvarita

    Hey Tom,

    Guess what the carbon footprint of 7.3 billion people is? Take a wild guess, then get ready to justify reducing the population. Something tells me your response will be “Uh…uh…uh…that’s different.

    September 22, 2015 - 10:58 AM

  • Tom

    alvarita … you have just hit on what I believe to be the single biggest issue facing mankind in the foreseeable future. Any new ideas that have not been tried?

    September 23, 2015 - 9:35 AM

  • hackenzac

    What does population density have to do with the energy density of li-ion batteries? Is it even reasonable to compare a rechargeable battery to fossil fuels? A Tesla in New York due to differences in electricity generation has a larger “carbon footprint” than a Tesla in California but in a situation that integrates solar electric generation, storage systems and rechargeable electric cars, it’s more like comparing apples to t bone steaks. Let us know when we can buy a diesel powered laptop and maybe the comparisons might be apt but until then it’s not even comparing different fruits. Transportation wise, location matters and the sunny climes lean the comparison favorably towards rechargeable batteries especially when all the costs are factored in ie. public health, the environment and foreign policies that have led to expensive wars over so called energy security.

    September 23, 2015 - 11:00 AM

  • alvarita

    There are the laws of physics and there are people with unrealistic expectations, and there are people who would argue for the sake of argument to get attention. If we disregard the latter two groups the simple fact is that current battery technology is lagging behind other technologies by about a century. It takes x amount of energy to move a certain mass at a certain velocity, end of story. Slice and dice or paint it any way you care to but the energy to meet current human demand has to come from some source other than dreams. The chart that Peter included tells the story quite nicely in realistic terms and shouldn’t need much explanation for anyone who made it past the ninth grade. Lacking some incredible breakthrough in battery or other energy conversion technology, the world will be tied to fossil fuels for a long time, like it or not. Even if fusion should become a practical source of relatively cheap power, the infrastructure changes would likely take decades to implement conversion of all vehicles to electrical power, and sooner or later people would complain about elevated helium levels as a byproduct of fusion causing everyone’s voice to sound like Donald Duck’s. Here’s another dream…I’m waiting for Tesla to announce an electric Boeing 787, you know, the Dreamliner. Yeah, that’ll happen. Now, to answer hackenquack’s question regarding whether it’s reasonable to compare a battery to fossil fuels…it certainly is when comparing the performance and/or cost of both powering the same vehicle or any machinery for that matter. By the way, you can buy a diesel powered laptop. Any laptop will do. All you need to do is take a ride on a diesel powered train and plug it in when your battery dies. That’s what is meant by being realistic. Next question….

    September 24, 2015 - 1:18 AM

  • Dr Stevens

    Only about 14%–30% of the energy from the fuel you put in a conventional vehicle is used to move it down the road. The remaining is lost due to combustion and noise, vibration etc.

    Energy output of a battery is about 98%

    September 25, 2015 - 6:46 AM

  • Alvarita

    “Energy output of a battery is about 98%”
    Ok, but battery efficiency is one small part of the equation. The battery does not move the vehicle. Electric motors do. Are they also 98% efficient? No. They are very high but typically not 98%. Next we have potential on-board energy carrying capacity where electric vehicles currently fall flat on their faces and we start to get into real world issues. Let’s start with recharging. Tesla claims that recharging “could” eventually be done in five to ten minutes but the equipment and infrastructure upgrades to deliver the amount of electric power needed to do so would incur an immense cost nation wide. The reality is that there are so many unknowns that it boils down to whether one chooses to be a guinea pig or not. I think many folks would embrace electric vehicles if we had the answers to certain questions, but we don’t, and personally I’ll leave the role of guinea pig to someone else considering the cost. Your mileage may vary. The first question I ask of those who insist that electric cars are so great is “Do you own one?” I’ll let you guess what percentage answer “Yes”.

    September 25, 2015 - 10:37 AM

  • Peter Clausi

    I’m the author of the original article. I love a good spirited debate but there will be no name-calling or personal attacks. Hackenzac, please repost your commentary, which is pretty good, without the ad hominem attacks.

    September 25, 2015 - 11:44 AM

  • hackenzac

    Here’s the original with no changes. Thank you for your reconsideration. We have some history so with that context maybe you’ll leave it alone this time.

    [Editor note: changes were made to eliminate personal attacks but leave the substance.]

    “Electric vehicles currently fall flat on their faces”. Is that so? Tesla builds a car that’s a world class performer on par with the best of Europe such as Porsche and Ferrari and also is currently capable of getting 300 miles per charge, well within daily commuter range for most people. In a sunny climates with alternative energy options, they are viable and catching on. Like I said, it’s the fuel dummy. Carbon doesn’t factor into your “equation” but it does into mine.

    September 25, 2015 - 12:40 PM

  • Peter Clausi

    Alvarita and Hackenzac, I don’t know who either of you are or who you think you are but this is not the place to settle old scores. Take that part of your conversation offline. Please continue to contribute to the group with meaningful insight and statistics.

    September 25, 2015 - 3:00 PM

  • Alvarita

    Thank you Peter. This seems to have started because I agreed with your opinion regarding lithium batteries. It’s clear by the timeline and content of my initial post to someone other than hackenzac that I was not trying to settle any score with anyone. You appear to be a smart and logical person. If so, it should be obvious where the nonsense is coming from.

    September 25, 2015 - 3:07 PM

  • hackenzac

    I said apples and t bone steak and I stand by the assertion. Fuel to fuel, the sun is lowest cost by far especially when you factor in the giant price paid for combustion on the environment along with other major downsides such as air that can’t be breathed and multi trillion dollars big war misadventuring. Kuwait won’t be getting overrun by tanks due to eternal sunshine. My math takes in the costs of 400 parts per million CO2 already in the air. That carbon has to start heading back into the ground or we’re pretty much screwed and at the least of it we’ll be seeing a lot more refugees. The Syrian situation started with a drought. If a Tesla can get 300 miles per charge in ludicrous mode, who cares about the density of the batteries? They’re dense enough and will no doubt be getting even denser like some of the skulls we often see around. The costs are magnitudes lower with electrics provided the grid is supported by alternative energy and not one of you guy’s favorites like “high density” coal. Li-ion batteries are gonna be huge. If you can’t understand why, there’s no hope for you.

    September 25, 2015 - 4:47 PM

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