The Inexorable Relationship Between Autonomy and a Lithium-Dependent Green Future
Great Britain, one of history’s most prominent automobile manufacturers has committed to not producing any more internal combustion engines by 2030. Catalyzed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and other countries in Western Europe have accelerated their plans to ween their economies off of imported hydrocarbons, some committing to doing so by as soon as 2024. These are very well-intentioned policies that will help each country “Go Green,” yet none of these governments seem to have checked to see whether that goal is even physically possible with current infrastructure. And I will tell you: it isn’t. And the bottleneck is the same for all of them: energy storage, specifically with lithium-based batteries.
Energy storage is going to be globally the biggest hurdle for countries trying to give up because we take it for granted with fossil fuels. Whether oil, natural gas, or gasoline, the potential energy we depend on to run our homes, cars, and businesses is in very the matter we dig up and refine. As such, storage is as simple as, “Don’t burn it yet.” With green energy on the other hand, storage requires separate infrastructure every time you get energy but don’t want to use it yet. That means each green energy producer, green grid, green mode of transportation, and green structure will need storage infrastructure, and right now there is basically only one best solution for the job: lithium-based batteries.
I realize lithium-based batteries are not the only type of battery, nor the only type of energy storage. However, lithium-based batteries are currently the de-facto energy storage approach for everything from solar farms to iPhones to electric cars, for a simple reason: they work well and we have already scaled the technology. Scaling energy storage technology is very difficult because it always requires a high initial investment, which usually comes from a new, independently booming industry that has no comparable solution. For lithium-based batteries, it was the co-emergence of laptops, cell phones, and tablets, and even in that case it was nearly a decade of spin-up from the decision to go lithium to these batteries displacing their inferior Ni-MH and NiCaD counterparts. The rarity and complexity of such an effort is why promising storage technologies like alternative or new battery technology, hydrolysis of hydrogen from water, flywheels, thermal storage, and others are so far from adoption.
The reason lithium base batteries are bottlenecked is because of the issues with mining the batteries’ raw materials. Nickel and Cobalt are very important to the battery manufacturing process, but I want to just focus on the most problematic material, which is lithium. Large lithium deposits lie in basically only three parts of the world: the Andes of Chile, Argentina, and Peru, Western Australia, and China, with an honorable mention to Nevada where there will likely be a lot more soon. These sources are already so in demand that the cost of lithium has tripled in the last 2 years. Assuming similar growth over the next 10–20 years, these sources will fall well short of the envisioned future where every car on the road is electric and every solar field has enough storage to keep the lights on at night…ya know, the dark time when you actually need lights.
Undeniably part of this solution will be to move more to public transit. However, its not as widely applicable or helpful as people believe. Buses and rideshare taxis are excellent modes of transit that are easy to implement and adopt regardless of existing infrastructure, but ultimately do not have as much of an impact as advocates would like because they do not reduce emissions significantly and are difficult to financially justify. Passenger rail is even worse in this regard. The in last few decades, with improvements to car efficiency (such as it is) and the costs of air travel, the financial viability of passenger rail systems is primarily reserved to two categories. Firstly, comprehensive urban transit networks in ultra-dense cities are viable because of the cost and inconvience of keeping and operating cars. Secondly, high speed rail connecting the high-density hubs of medium distance communities (100–500 km) is viable because it is more convenient than cars and too short to justify air travel. However, as evidenced by the state of the New York City Subway System and the outlook of the brand new Chinese High Speed Rail project, passenger rail is hard to operate at a profit even in these scenarios.
So besides powering the Teslas with disposable AA batteries, what can we do? Specifically, can we do anything about automotive demand as vehicles are the least accessible market for the new energy storage options? Arguably, as any well educated architect or urban planner will tell you, we should be designing towns and cities to be more walkable and bikeable. But many people cannot depend on just walking and biking (physically), and it doesn’t make any financial sense to tear down and replace existing car-centric towns and cities.
The important angle I consider here is: we humans have too many vehicles, period. As an example, lets consider the stereotypically most car-focused country in the world: the United States of America. In 2019 (the last “normal” driving year), Americans spent, on average, 20 whole days of their year driving — the vast majority of that commuting — and nearly 75% of commuters were driving alone. Leaving aside wastefulness and misery of driving this much, consider this data from a different angle: in the most stereotypically driving-focused culture, cars were only used for transit 20 days out of 365, or 5.45% of the time. This means that, from a resource utility standpoint, the vehicles in existence are wildly underutilized. This is an opportunity to reduce
A long-term solution that can take advantage of this resource under-utilization is electric autonomous taxis buses. Without needing to pay drivers, the per-ride cost goes way down, meaning bus quality can improve and taxis become more universally accessible. As I mentioned, it works with existing architecture — both car-friendly and walkable — and doesn’t have rail’s fixed-endpoint problem. The trick will be to design vehicles with easy repair and long operating-life in mind. With that, its not hard to imagine a future “Waymo”-like company just owning and maintaining a large fleet of long lasting, expensive-to-buy-but-cheap-to-repair autonomous vehicles that operate nearly constantly all day and night. At that point no one needs to (or maybe even would want to) own their own car, so lithium, cobalt, and nickel demand would plummet because you would only need a fraction of the cars globally.
It is a shame, but by pushing so aggressively for green energy, we are forcing the world to economically trade one pool of polarizing natural resources for another. Right now, in our hydro-carbon dependent society oil, natural gas, and coal can mean the difference between wealthy developed country and an undeveloped country. At the same time, it can mean the difference between a corrupt, single-asset economy of a country constantly driven to strife, or a equitable, diverse economy of a country at peace, regardless of economic success. So too will it be in the green energy future the world because of lithium as well as nickel and cobalt.
There are many components to this problem, and I am by no means suggesting that autonomous transit is a silver bullet. But if we want to make the Green 21st Century also more peaceful and globally equal than the last, we must plan to avoid swapping one resource craze for another in the name of progress.