UK faces choice between climate change and defence if lithium supplies are not developed

30 November 2010

Depleting lithium stocks could force the UK to choose between whether climate change or national security is the greater priority in the future, according to the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Dr Richard Pike said that a significant proportion of lithium is locked up in nuclear weapons and  continues to be used in their manufacture. The extra demand for lithium in battery-powered electric cars could therefore produce a dilemma.

"The potential shortage of lithium poses the intriguing choice between defence and electric cars," he said. "So there will be a dilemma between national security and addressing climate change."

Speaking ahead of Oxford University's inorganic chemistry laboratory being awarded an RSC chemical landmark plaque for the foundation for development of lithium-ion batteries based, Dr Pike also warned that mobile phones, laptops and electronic games will be much more expensive in the future if lithium stocks continue to dwindle.

Demand for lithium is expected to outstrip supply in 10 years time due to ever-increasing consumption rates, which could lead to a rise in cost of consumer goods. Dr Pike said the world needed to look at new ways of conserving and developing scarce natural resources to prevent this from happening.

"Following the Big Bang, lithium was the first metal to come into existence. On Earth its presence is fading fast, with implications for us all, from electronic gadgets to lithium-ion batteries for electric cars," he said. "On a cosmic scale, therefore, this is a case of 'first in, first out', and we need to address consequences for other elements, too. We need more effective recycling, material substitution, international protocols, and an intellectual culture that asks, 'Is there a different way of doing things?'"

Mobile phones, laptops, cameras, wristwatches and electronic games all rely on lithium-ion batteries to work. Although Sony first commercialised these batteries John B Goodenough, Philip Wiseman, Koichi Mizushima and Philip Jones at Oxford University, are widely recognised as the "discoverers". Dr Pike paid tribute today to the team's work.

As the lightest metal on earth, lithium is ideal for use in batteries since it can store three times the energy density of most other competing materials. Lithium-ion batteries are currently estimated to power 90 percent of laptops and more than 60 percent of mobile phones. According to recent data, total lithium demand has almost doubled in the past decade and is expected to rise steadily to 55,000 metric tons by 2020.

"Forecasters are saying that demand will begin to drive lithium prices up in the next 10 to 15 years. But the signs are clear: Lithium, which now costs less than a dollar per kilogram, will not stay cheap for long," warned Dr Pike.

Dr Pike has already spoken out on disputes about diminishing essential elements, which he says may come in the future should these elements be the sole preserve of a handful of countries.  

Notes for editors 

. The award will be presented at 5.45pm, pictures are available on request. The RSC Chemical Landmark Scheme is the official recognition of historical sites where important chemical breakthroughs have been made and are an RSC initiative to commemorate, emphasise and awaken public interest in historic developments in the chemical sciences.
. Sites that are awarded Chemical Landmark status have either played a major part in the development of chemical science or have seen a development of chemical science that has made a significant contribution to the health, wealth or quality of life of the nation.
. A maximum of four Chemical Landmarks plaques are awarded by the RSC per year.

. The scheme was first introduced in 2001 to commemorate, emphasise and awaken public interest in historic developments in the chemical sciences. Sites that are awarded chemical landmark status will have played a major part in the development of chemical science that has led to a significant contribution to the health, wealth and quality of the nation today.

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