Starting about two years ago, fears of a lithium shortage almost tripled prices for the metal, to more than $20,000 a ton, in just 10 months. The cause was a spike in the market for electric vehicles, which were suddenly competing with laptops and smartphones for lithium ion batteries. Demand for the metal won’t slacken anytime soon—on the contrary, electric car production is expected to increase more than thirtyfold by 2030, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Rest assured, Earth has the lithium. The next dozen years will drain less than 1 percent of the reserves in the ground, BNEF says. But battery makers are going to need more mines to support their production, and they’ll have to build them much more quickly than anyone thought.
By 2030, Tianqi Lithium, SQM, Albemarle, and FMC, the companies that dominate the business, will have to supply enough lithium to feed the equivalent of 35 plants the size of the Tesla Gigafactory now being built in Nevada, according to BNEF. The total investment in new mines, including some for other elements used in lithium ion batteries, will likely range from $350 billion to $750 billion, according to analysts at researcher Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.