That may be overly optimistic, according to Ashvin Chotai, managing director of Intelligence Automotive Asia Ltd. in London. Even with competitive pricing, higher gasoline prices and adequate vehicle charging infrastructure, demand for electric vehicles may reach only a few million units by 2020, he said. Auto consulting company CSM Worldwide predicts global electric car production will reach 289,000 units by 2015.
Umicore already recycles a limited number of lithium-ion batteries at its pilot plant in Sweden, recovering the lithium carbonate for use as a residue in the construction industry. But as the market for lithium grows, the company said it hopes to eventually supply lithium from its recycling plants in the United States to battery manufacturers, Weekes said.
Though lithium is among the least valuable materials to recover, lithium-ion batteries could become just as valuable to recycling firms as the nickel-metal hydride batteries found in Toyota's hybrid Prius. "In the case of lithium-ion batteries, the economics are as compelling, if not more so," Weekes said.
And from an environmental perspective, it makes sense to reuse battery materials, as well. Though lithium-ion batteries contain none of the caustic chemicals found in lead-acid batteries, dumping them in landfills would be wasteful and could potentially pollute area groundwater, Weekes said.
Coy, of Toxco, said it is too early to tell what kind of value recyclers will get out of lithium-ion vehicle batteries because developers and automakers are very secretive about what components they will use. The few batteries the company has recycled have been available through only a limited release, he said, adding that he does not know much more than the public about what materials the next wave of lithium-ion batteries will contain.
Plenty of lithium to go around
With most of the world's lithium production centered in Bolivia, Chile and China, some say having a recycling infrastructure in place for vehicle batteries could help save the United States from trading "peak oil" for "peak lithium."
Demand for lithium is currently restrained by the global recession but is expected to catch back up with the world supply by 2013, according to TRU Group Inc. Rising demand for electric vehicles could cause a lithium production crunch as early as 2017 and beyond, the Toronto-based industry research firm said.
However, those fears may be premature, said Linda Gaines, an analyst at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago who is conducting a four-year study into whether the world's supply of lithium can fuel the U.S. transition to battery-driven vehicles.
"Even if we have a very, very energetic program of putting in electric vehicles, we're still not going to use up all the lithium," said Gaines, whose research found that lithium demand could be met through at least 2050. Those calculations assumed the United States would have roughly half a billion electric vehicles on the road by midcentury, with annual sales at about 21 million.
If people should be worried about the supplies of any material, it should be cobalt, a material many times more valuable than lithium but likely to be phased out of vehicle batteries over the coming years, Gaines said. Some battery manufacturers may even be leery about buying recycled lithium compounds from recyclers for fear of contamination, Gaines said.