Member-supported news for Southern California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support for KPCC comes from:

As Tesla Gigafactory officially opens, what's the future for lithium batteries?

Ways to Subscribe

The Gigafactory's grand opening in Sparks, Nevada, is Friday.

The invitation for Tesla's July 29 Gigafactory grand opening gives the street address as 1 Electric Avenue in Sparks, Nevada — as if guests would have a problem finding a place so large it can probably be seen from outer space.

2 million square feet, and counting

Growing to as large as 13 million square feet, Tesla’s new gigafactory isn’t just big. It’s epic.

“This is really quite an enormous facility. In fact, it will produce more lithium ion batteries than all other factories in the world combined,” Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said in March, just before throwing off the covers on his highly anticipated entry-level Model 3 sedan. Almost 400,000 Model 3s have seen been pre-ordered.

To produce so many cars, Musk said, "We would need to absorb the entire world’s lithium ion production.”

Which is a lot of lithium ion. But where will it come from? And are there other battery chemistries on the horizon if it runs out?

Lithium demand is on the rise

"The global lithium market is in a tight supply situation," said Joe Lowry, aka Mr. Lithium, who runs a lithium advisory firm. "Now with the sudden demand boom in both electric transportation and electric storage for renewables, we’re in a situation where the market’s tight and it’s probably going to be tight until 2021.”

Lowry has been in the lithium industry since the early ‘90s, when lithium’s light weight and capacity for energy storage made it the hot ticket for rechargeable batteries in handheld devices.

At Tesla’a current production level of 100,000 cars per year, Lowry said Tesla uses less than two percent of the world's lithium.

Even when the Gigafactory reaches full capacity of 500,000 cars annually, it will only use 10 percent of the world’s lithium, he said.

"If you took a Model S, 85 kilowatt hour battery, you’ve got less than $500 worth of lithium in that. The Model 3 will have a smaller battery," Lowry said. "It’s not going to be a deal breaker."

So even though supplies are tight today, there should be more than enough lithium to go around, right?

Lithium is plentiful

Unlike petroleum, which is used once and gone forever, lithium can be endlessly recycled.

And there’s a lot of lithium in the world.  The supply problem isn’t abundance so much as availability. It takes time and money to get new mines up and running in the parts of the planet with high concentrations — places like Chile, Argentina, Australia and China, which is the world's largest consumer of lithium.

Then there's the remote area that may have influenced Tesla’s decision to set up its Gigafactory in Nevada rather than California.

It’s a parched No Man’s Land called Clayton Valley -- in Nevada. Home to one of the only lithium reserves in the U.S., it’s 200 miles from the Gigafactory. Last year, Tesla signed agreements with two companies there, even though Clayton Valley’s lithium quantities are low.

So what’s the big deal with lithium?

Lithium's allure

"Lithium is the lightest element at room temperature. It's tough to beat, " said Mark Verbrugge, director of General Motors' Global Research and Development Lab.

"In terms of a battery where you have solid state materials where you can package them efficiently, lithium is a very, very strong contender. It's doubtful nature’s going to give us something better," he said.

Before the end of the year, General Motors will beat Tesla to the punch with a mass-market, affordable, long-range electric called the Bolt. GM says it will go at least 200 miles per charge.

And it will be powered with lithium ion, but a chemistry that is 50 percent more efficient than the lithium ion batteries GM used to power its plug-in-hybrid Volt just six years ago. So the chemistry is evolving, and evolving quickly.

New battery technologies on the horizon

Still, in the fairly near future, GM is "looking very much to cannibalize, eclipse and move on to the next thing," Verbrugge said. "My guesstimate would be that post 2020, you’re going to start to see silicon-enhanced electrodes come into the marketplace.”

That’s a lithium ion battery technology also, but one that’s four times the capacity of current lithium ion systems.

With EVs poised to become The Next Big Thing in transportation, GM’s is one of several labs looking for the next big battery technology to power them.

“There are now lots of interest in the scientific community looking at different technology that are sort of beyond the lithium ion battery,” said Brian Ingram, a battery researcher with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.  

"Here at Argonne, we are looking at two different approaches, the first being exemplified by lithium sulfur chemistry” -- which is more energy dense and lower cost than lithium ion and could enter the market in the next few years.

The other, Ingram said, is multivalent batteries that don’t use lithium but magnesium, which is more readily available, lower cost and more energy dense. That’s still at least a decade away from commercial deployment, he said.

The next breakthrough battery won't be anything like lithium ion

"Every new battery is a disruptive radical innovation in battery chemistry," according to David Sadoway,  chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and pioneer of a new liquid metal battery used for stationery energy storage.

"So lead acid is nothing like nickel metal hydride," he said.

Lead acid was the battery chemistry used in the earliest EVs from more than a century ago.

"Nickel metal hydride is nothing like lithium ion."

Nickel metal hydride is the battery that’s still being used in the Toyota Prius. And lithium ion is what powers pretty much every battery electric vehicle today, whether it’s the Nissan Leaf, BMW i3 or Tesla.

Now everyone's looking for the net big breakthrough.

Whatever comes along to replace lithium ion — eventually — is likely to be a radical departure. But it’s not a contest, Sadoway said.

"It’s not battery versus battery. It’s battery versus hydrocarbons. It’s battery against diesel. It’s battery against natural gas," he said.

"Lithium ion was a major milestone. It was a fantastic discovery, but lithium ion wasn’t designed for cars. It wasn’t designed for stationery storage. It’s made remarkable progress in both of those areas, but I would look at it more as inspirational than a final solution."

The future may find us using batteries based on magnesium, aluminum or even sodium -- salt. But for now, with Tesla's plan to quickly begi producing storage cells in giga-level numbers, expe t the soft, silvery white metal known as lithium to remain in high demand.

Stay Connected