Lithium used to be known primarily as a drug with a calming effect. Today, it seems to be among the issues that provoke distress: “There won’t be enough! Mining will be so destructive!”

It might be useful to try to analyze these fears in the context of the looming environmental challenges humanity faces.

Such analysis assumes that lithium chemistries will remain the dominant ones used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries. At this point lithium batteries have the highest energy density, but there are many labs around the world working on alternatives that use less lithium and more of the more common minerals.

Here we hope to achieve an appreciation of the environmental impact of mining lithium in comparison to extracting and using fossil fuels, because that’s the relevant comparison. We’ll start with the spoiler and hope you follow our findings that led to it. Here it is:

In one year we extract more oil just to produce gasoline than we would extract lithium ore to produce all of the lithium needed for all the EVs in the world for the next 30 years.

Is lithium extraction a big problem? As usual, we suggest that the important thing is “how big?” and “compared to what?” and, of course, relying on numbers as much as possible to answer these questions. We will be using ballpark estimates, not intended to be precise, but rather to give a reasonably accurate sense of magnitude.


We’ll address 3 questions:

How much lithium would be needed to supply enough EVs to replace all of the internal combustion vehicles in the world?

How much lithium is available in comparison to the need?

How much would filling that need for EVs reduce the mining and drilling we do for internal combustion vehicles?

Item 1: According to what we could gather from various sources, 1kWh of battery currently requires around 160 grams of lithium. EV batteries differ in capacity but we will use a typical value of 65 kWh—the battery size of a Chevy Bolt with a range of 260 miles per charge. So each vehicle would require around 10.4 kg (23lbs) of lithium.

Replacing the 282 million vehicles registered in the US in 2021 with EVs would require 3 million tons of lithium. To supply the 1.5 billion vehicles in the world with EVs would require around 16 million tons of lithium. This is the total lithium needed to put them on the road, not an ongoing need.


Item 2: Let’s look at the supply: Currently the world production of lithium is only about 80,000 tons annually. It would take 200 years at that rate to supply all we need.Yikes!! Is there a supply problem?

Lithium is abundant in the earth’s crust, but much is not practically available (like the 230 billion tons in the ocean at concentrations too low to harvest). However, lithium reserves (that is, deposits that are known to be commercially recoverable) currently amount to 26 million tons. These reserves will most certainly increase. As demand increases new reserves are developed.

This indicates that there is plenty of lithium for our batteries! Incidentally the Plumbago North reserve in Newry Maine has an estimated 200,000 tons of lithium—enough to supply over 20 million cars with 65kWh batteries.

Item 3: What is the impact of lithium extraction? Let’s compare it to what it would replace, producing fossil fuels.

Lithium is extracted by two primary methods: mining ores and extraction from salts and brines. Typical lithium ore has about 1% lithium. Salts have lower concentrations but require no mining and require less energy to produce. The local environmental impacts of lithium mining are relatively mild compared to other metals as the tailings are silicon-based as opposed to sulfur-based.

To produce all of the lithium needed for the 1.5 billion cars in the world would require mining of less than 1.6 billion tons of ore, and much less if we include brine extraction.


Once the world fleet is electrified, most of the lithium and other minerals needed for batteries will be recycled from older batteries, and the lithium extraction rate can be greatly reduced.

Around 2 billion tons of oil are extracted each year just to produce gasoline. (And we currently mine 8 billion tons of coal per year.) Again, we need 1.6 billion tons of lithium ore to make batteries for all the cars in the world, after which most of the lithium, and other battery materials, can be supplied by recycling.

Shifting to electric transport alone will NOT solve our energy problem. We will still have to extract fossil fuels if we don’t shift our electricity to renewables and other low CO2 sources. But with a shift to renewables the lifetime carbon emissions of an EV is 20 times smaller than a typical gasoline powered car.

Electrifying our transport is one of many needed climate solutions. It’s not an easy solution, as there are corporate and geopolitical forces currently skewed against it. But like almost everything about the energy transition, the technology and materials are in place and poised to have a meaningful impact–if we can do it quickly enough.

Paul Stancioff, PhD., is professor emeritus of physics at UMF. Cynthia Stancioff is a re-writer of her own and others’ prose. Email: [email protected] or [email protected] Previous columns can be found at

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