Lithium is one of the lightest alkali metals and highly reactive elements. Its name is derived from Greek word “lithos”, which means stone. It is extracted from two main sources i.e., ore mining and salt deserts. Australia is the main source of ore mined lithium, while Chile and Argentina are well known for salt deserts or salaras.
The majority of the world’s lithium is extracted from brine sources, which are found below lakes of high-altitude salt flats. The extraction of lithium involves drilling a hole and pumping brine to the surface with the help of water. The mixture is then left for many months for evaporation. The mixture is then distilled to extract lithium after 12 to 18 months.
The lithium demand has hit record levels in the past few years, and the two key contributors to this rise in demand are:
· An uptrend in digital technology coupled with smart technologies, which are integrated with lithium-ion batteries (LIBs).
· A surge in green energy usage and electric vehicles’ usage.
Lithium mining is often criticised for using excessive water and creating drought-like situations in various parts of the world.
Lithium and its compounds are predominantly extracted from hard rock sources and brine deposits. Historically, hard rock sources were mined but since the 1990s, brine deposits have been used to produce lithium on a commercial scale. Most of the existing lithium supply comes from hard rock mineral, spodumene, which is found in Australia and the United States, or is being extracted from brine solutions from salars in South America.
Lithium concentration in brine solutions is increased by solar evaporation in ponds. The evaporation process is a time-consuming one and could take up to one-and-a-half years to concentrate the solution to 6% Li content. Thereafter, the brine solution is used to produce high-value lithium compounds, including lithium chloride, lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide.
With disruptions in the cobalt supply chain, automobile makers are switching to low-cobalt battery chemistries. Low-cobalt cathodes for lithium batteries are anticipated to utilise lithium hydroxide instead of lithium carbonate as a feedstock. Seawater contains over 0.2 parts per million lithium. Some scientists have proposed electrolysis to recover lithium compounds from seawater, but it is not yet commercially viable.
ASX Lithium companies
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Frequently Asked Questions
Most prominently, lithium is used to manufacture rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras and electric vehicles. Additionally, it is used in ceramics, glasses, alloys, lubrication and medicine.
The top three lithium-producing nations are Australia, Chile and China. Collectively, these three countries accounted for over 86% of the global lithium production in 2020 with Australia accounting for over half of the global lithium supply.With the burgeoning demand for electric vehicles, lithium’s demand is expected to grow rapidly in this decade.
The lithium price continues to grow as the demand for EVs exceeds supply due to material and refinery bottlenecks. However, lithium is not a scarce mineral. It is the 33rd most widely available element on the earth and is spread across in trace amounts in seawater, soils, rocks, surface and groundwater.
China, Chile, and Australia hold the world’s largest reserves. Almost 63% of the global reserves are found within the lithium triangle, a region shared by Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. Furthermore, Central and Latin American countries such as Mexico and Peru hold more than three million tonnes of lithium in reserves.
The global market for alkali metal-lithium is growing rapidly. The period between 2008 and 2018 alone saw annual production in the major producing countries rise multifold. Lithium’s usage in EV batteries has been an important source of demand growth. Lithium is also used in laptop and cell phone batteries, as well as in the glass and ceramics industry
Lithium occurs in predominantly two categories, hard rock sources, specially spodumene (Li2O.Al2O3.4SiO2), and salts, consisting of lithium-rich brines. Australia is among the leading producer of lithium from hard rock sources, while lithium in brines is produced in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, China and the US.
Lithium’s supply from Australia is sourced from its current resources and mines that mostly produce spodumene along with other lithium-based minerals such as lepidolite. These minerals usually have an average grade of 1% to 3% Li2O and are associated with tin and tantalum mineralisation.
Almost all of the Australian resources are linked to granite pegmatites of the Archean age with major lithium deposits located within the Yilgarn Craton and Pilbara region of Western Australia. Currently, the lithium global output is estimated to rise to 944,000 tonnes by 2024. The rapid growth will be met by increased output from Australia, Chile and Argentina. The current mining and brine supply is insufficient to meet the burgeoning demand for lithium.