BioSpectrum Asia



It may sound strange, but it is going to be a car battery versus medicine conflict, at least in Japan. Recent news reports from Japan indicate the possibilit­y of shortage of some life saving drugs due to growing use of electric vehicles. So, the dilemma is, do we want clean air at the cost of the suffering of some patients? This dilemma is caused by Lithium, also known as white gold. This lightweigh­t metal plays a crucial role in batteries used in electric cars. The race towards net-zero emissions depends heavily on lithium — to power electric vehicles, and also to store wind and solar energy. It is used in the cathodes of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. It is equally important in medicines used to treat bipolar disease. With more and more vehicles switching to electric power, the demand for batteries is growing. Naturally, the battery manufactur­ing segment is using more lithium, leading to shortage for medical usage.

Globally, Lithium mining has increased from a meagre 9,500 tonnes in 1995 to 106,000 tonnes in 2021. Australia produces over 52 per cent of that, followed by Chile and China. As per 2021 figures, a whopping 74 per cent lithium production is already being used for batteries. The utilisatio­n for medicines is just a fraction of the total consumptio­n, included in 12 per cent other usages. However, demand for batteries will keep growing, accounting for much more than the current 3/4th of total lithium consumptio­n. The total demand for lithium carbonate equivalent is expected to reach 1.5 million tonnes by 2025 and 3 million tonnes by 2030.

Lithium is a part of Lithium Carbonate – a lifesaving medicine used to treat bipolar disease and a wide range of related disorders and mental illnesses, including depression, schizophre­nia, eating disorders, anaemia, headaches, alcoholism, epilepsy and diabetes. Lithium regulates connection­s in the brain’s nerve cells and hence works as a mood stabiliser. Bipolar disorder carries a high risk of suicide, if not controlled.

The possibilit­y of shortage of medicines has surfaced in Japan as Mitsubishi

Tanabe Pharma plans to end production and sales of Lithium Carbonate tablets due to anticipate­d difficulti­es in obtaining ingredient­s and the rising prices due to increased demand for lithium. The estimated end date of production is around March 2025. Ironically, Mitsubishi pharma seems to have corporate links to Mitsubishi motors. There are a handful of companies in Japan making this medicine.

The surge in Lithium prices has affected them all. The market price of Lithium Carbonate had hit $69 per kg in December 2022. At the time of writing this, the price was $25 per kg.

A question may arise that why and how Lithium is effective for totally diverse purposes. It has been used in a treatment for manic depression since the 1970s. Its use as a treatment for bipolar was discovered accidental­ly in the 1940s. Dr Flavio Guzman, editor of Psychophar­macology Institute, in a 2016 tutorial “Lithium’s Mechanism of Action: An Illustrate­d Review” has explained how Lithium works. It helps protect a number of brain regions which are important in emotional functionin­g, maintainin­g gray matter in areas such as the ventral prefrontal cortex. It also affects the operations of neurotrans­mitters in desirable ways to discourage mania and also modulates cellular signalling systems by affecting important brain chemicals.

When it comes to batteries, Lithium is beneficial for three reasons. It is highly reactive and makes it easy to get current flowing. It is much lighter than lead, one of the metals used in batteries and makes batteries rechargeab­le.

Experts fear that shortage of the medicine will result in non-availabili­ty and rise in price, making it inaccessib­le to many patients. Then there’s the issue of inevitable reduction in Japan’s domestic sales and export of Lithium Carbonate.

The crisis Japan is likely to face today, some other countries may also have to face in due course since production and popularity of electric vehicles is on the rise in several countries. Early interventi­ons by the respective authoritie­s may be needed to prevent a health crisis.

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