Lithium is the little-known metal that can be found everywhere in modern society. Although its most common, everyday use is in the batteries that power our portable electronics, such as mobile phones and tablets, it is also widely used in other applications such as ceramics, glass, lubricants and even pharmaceuticals.
Lithium offers unique properties that are hard to replicate in other battery materials. For example, it has an extremely high electrochemical potential. This means that one lithium-ion cell can do more – making it much more efficient than other elements. In addition, it is the lightest metal in the periodic table. In other words, lithium is light but can also pack a large amount of power.
Extracting lithium: Mineral vs. brine
While it is found in various deposits all over the world, there are two basic ways to extract lithium: either from brine (saline groundwater) harvesting or from hard rock mining.
Brines are found underground and pumped to the surface where the dissolved lithium is concentrated via evaporation under the sun – a process that takes up to two years to complete. Approximately three-quarters of the world’s lithium reserves are found in brines, most of which are in South America. However, brine deposits can vary in terms of lithium concentration and are exposed to different weather conditions – both of which can influence the ability to recover the metal in an economically viable way.
As regards hard rock mining, lithium can be extracted from pegmatite deposits. Although pegmatites are not especially rare, the lithium-bearing ones are.
Meanwhile hard rock ore produces higher purity lithium than brines, and holds greater potential to be directly processed into the product type required for batteries. The three largest lithium-bearing pegmatite deposits are found in the U.S., the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Australia – the latter of which is home to the largest active lithium mine in the world.
Growing lithium market
Lithium can be used across a wide range of applications. At the present time, the most common of these is the battery supply chain for electric vehicles (EV). Demand is growing rapidly as manufacturers produce an increasing number of EVs, while nations impose stricter regulations on environmental emissions. Demand is expected to rise even further as a result of the increasing use of batteries to store renewable energy on the power grid.
Read more about electric vehicles: Designing the car of the future
Spot prices for lithium carbonate and hydroxide (intermediary products) have doubled in less than 12 months amid growing forecasts of a demand boom and tight supply. Going forward, lithium demand is expected to increase 16 per cent per year for a decade – the fastest increase of any significant commodity over the past 100 years, according to analysts at Morningstar. Observers at Industrial Minerals are equally bullish, predicting that demand will grow up to sevenfold by 2024.
Worldwide lithium production increased by an estimated 12 per cent in 2016 in response to increased lithium demand, with batteries accounting for roughly 40 per cent of end usage, followed by 30 per cent in ceramics and glass.
Consequently, lithium supply security has become a top priority for technology companies around the globe. Strategic alliances between technology and exploration companies are being established to ensure a reliable, diversified source of lithium for battery providers and OEMs. Brine operations are under development in South America, China, and the U.S., while hard rock mining operations are being developed in Australia, Canada, China and Finland. Meanwhile, a jadarite mining operation – holding one of the largest lithium deposits in the world – is being developed in Serbia, and a lithium-clay mining operation is under way in Mexico.
Lithium to play a major part in sustainable future
While lithium is found all over the world, it can currently only be extracted from two main sources: ores and brines. Although the metal is more prevalent in the latter, hard rock ores offer higher-quality metal with lower start-up costs and are quicker to market. As demand for batteries increases, lithium mining will be essential to the supply chain and stands to play a major part in developing the sustainable future of tomorrow. While this crucial technology ingredient is still only in its initial stages, it appears to hold the key to what may become a major shift in modern society.
Sources: U.S. Geological Survey, British Geological Society, Albemarle, SQM, FMC Corporation