North American lithium supply chain moderator James Frith (left) and panelists (from left) Mujeeb Ijaz, Robert Privette, Rakesh Nahta, Hideki Ozawa, and Kevin Rhodes.

At the Battery Show North America, a panel of leaders addressed North America’s lithium supply challenges, and talked about signs that aggressive movement from companies and governments will address them.

Moderator James Frith, a Principal with Volta Energy Technologies, opened by laying out the extreme challenges, including the fact that a decade ago, 75 percent of the world’s lithium supply came from China, Chile, and Australia. “By 2030,” he said, those countries’ share of all supply will be less than 50.

He laid out an even more stark number: That next year, there will be roughly 850 GWh of demand in the North American lithium marketplace, but only 350 GWh of supply.

And because it is so important, from both geopolitical and supply-efficiency perspectives, for more North American-based lithium supply for the rapidly advancing EV market, it may be surprising that companies think the challenge can be met.

Mujeeb Ijaz, Founder and CEO of battery manufacturer Our Next Energy, expressed optimism. “We’re in a rapidly evolving story,” he said. “I think we’re going to cure the gap in a matter of years. In just one year, we’ve seen 15 factories announced and $70 billion in investments. I think next year [will only see that number grow].”

Ijaz also said that managing the lithium supply alone was only a partial solution. As more companies like his bring non-lithium-based batteries to market, it will help alleviate the demand bubble. “Demand management must be part of the solution,” he said.

And Robert Privette, cathode supplier Umicore’s Business Development Manager, said he didn’t think all this need would cause an unsustainable increase in lithium prices. “We just can’t afford to have more expensive lithium,” he said. “We just can’t afford the margins.” That means firms will rush in to help meet demand and keep prices down.

Moderator James Frith of Volta Energy Technologies and panelist Mujeeb Ijaz, Founder and CEO of Our Next Energy.

Privette was also one of the majority of panelists who said maintaining a diverse supplier list was key. One such drawback of a single supplier: What if the supplier can’t deliver lithium of the proper purity for batteries? There must be other suppliers to draw from.

Frith added that, as OEMs begin to contract directly with second-tier mining companies he called “junior miners,” it was just impossible that they will all be able to provide the proper purity.

With regard to mining, Ford Senior Manager of Value Chain and Quality Rakesh Nahta said that like other aspects of the supply chain, it requires the efforts and investments of companies like his, government and other suppliers like cathode makers. He mentioned that the level of investment would be in the billions of dollars. “You cannot expect just one supply chain book to do this. So this has to be managed by all parties.”

Kevin Rhodes, Vice President of Batteries and Advanced Fuels at Caterpillar, said having North American and even local suppliers online had an additional benefit, of making policy work easier. “Local suppliers are a big deal in helping us influence local and regional policy interactions,” he said.

Also on the panel was Hideki Ozawa, Vice President of Lithium Hydroxide for Albermarle Energy Storage.