Clean electrification means switching the grid to carbon-free sources. And then shifting technologies that previously relied on combustion onto the grid.
Battery technologies that enable this transition is built on lithium. Hence lithium is accelerating the shift to a renewable, sustainable and low-carbon future.
Lithium is a soft, silvery-white alkali metal. Under standard conditions, it is the least dense metal, it floats on water. It is also solid at a wide range of temperatures, with one of the lowest melting points of all metals and a high boiling point.
Lithium is highly reactive and is never found in its elemental, metallic form. Excellent heat and electrical conductivity characteristics make it useful for manufacturing pharmaceuticals, glass, lubricants, and most importantly, lithium-ion batteries for electric cars and consumer electronics.
The demand for lithium is tied to the exponential growth in EV production
Driven by government measures, lower vehicle prices, and increasing vehicle model choices from the likes of VW, GM and Ford trying to match Tesla's success, lithium demand is expected to increase to approximately 1.3 million metric tons of LCE (lithium carbonate equivalent) by 2025. This represents a five fold increase from 2020 levels and by 2040 demand is expected to increase 40-fold.
source: ZME Sciences>
A similar price trend applies to spodumene, the mineral ore from which more than 50% of lithium is produced.
Spodumene is traded via forward contracts and auctions months in advance of delivery between a few large players. The spot price market for spodumene has only recently emerged so it is difficult to track precise prices.
The table illustrates pricing trends since 2020 for spodumene (6% Li2O min)
|Year||Price / Ton||1 Year % Change|
Lithium (Li) is one of the primordial elements produced in Big Bang nucleosynthesis, along with helium and hydrogen.
Lithium is a comparatively rare element and constitutes less than 0.002 percent of Earth's crust. Although widely distributed on Earth it occurs in very low concentrations and not in elemental form due to its high reactivity.
Lithium is commonly found in igneous rocks, with the largest concentrations in granitic pegmatites with spodumene and petalite being the most commercially viable sources. The other major source of lithium is brine deposits.
There are a fairly large number of both lithium mineral and brine deposits but only comparatively few are commercially viable. Most are too small or too low in grade.
By far the largest producer of lithium from spodumene is Australia, which has a large deposit near Perth. The process consists of hard rock mining with the lithium extracted from spodumene via a chemical roasting process. A concentrate with at least 6% Li2O (approximately 75% spodumene) is usually required for this to be viable.
This is primarily an evaporation process that takes place over years, usually in remote locations. Water is pumped into the earth to create a brine that is captured in storage ponds. Over the course of 18-24 months natural evaporation occurs, and the resulting material is lithium carbonate.
A chemical process is used to leach lithium from clay ore. Clay minerals are mixed with an aqueous solution of acid (sulphuric acid or hydrochloric acid) and then heated under atmospheric pressure to leach out the lithium contained in the clay minerals.
Typically less than 5% of lithium batteries are recycled. It's five times more expensive to obtain lithium from spent batteries than by mining lithium. The process is complex and can be dangerous due to electrical, thermal and chemical interations. It may only be viable if other useful metals are simultaneously obtained, such as cobalt, nickel, copper, aluminium and rare earths.
Price hikes in 2015 triggered concern that lithium resources were insufficient to meet demand from the growing battery industry, and there were predictions that the world was running out of lithium.
Continued exploration since 2016 has uncovered new deposits and current estimates of reserves have been increasing along with demand.
Worldwide lithium reserves identified by USGS between 2016 to 2020 rose from 41 million tonnes to more than 80 million tonnes.
The reality is that lithium deposits are relatively common. We already know of many, and with further exploration more will be identified. Based on current trends every continent and most countries will likely have a lithium deposit, either already known or that could be found with exploration.