Lithium (chemical symbol Li), a soft, silvery-white alkali metal, is the third element on the periodic table (after hydrogen and helium), with the atomic number 3. Its density is about half that of water, making it is the least dense of the solid elements.
While lithium does not occur freely in nature and makes up only 0.0007% of the earth’s crust, it is found in nearly every igneous rock and also in mineral springs.
Historically, many laymen associated the term ‘lithium’ with its use (in the form of various salts of lithium) as a mood-stabilising medication. That said, lithium has the highest specific heat of any solid element, making it an efficient heat-transfer agent.
Today, lithium has many commercial applications, including in the manufacture of high-temperature lubricants, high strength-to-weight alloys (used, for example, in aircraft), heat-resistant glass and ceramics and, in the form of lithium hydroxide, as a means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere of spacecraft.
This element’s electrochemical potential also makes it a vital component of many batteries.
Lithium disposable batteries are distinguished from other disposable batteries in that they have a longer life (but cost more per unit) than zinc-carbon, nickel-metal hydride or alkaline batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries, which can be recharged many times over, are commonly used in portable consumer electronics such as mobile phones, laptops and tablets, due to their superior energy-to-weight ratio and slow loss of charge when not in use.
In the field of transportation, the lighter weight of lithium-ion batteries means that their use in military, electric vehicle (‘EV’) and aerospace applications continues to grow.
Future drivers of consumption
Innovations in communication and consumer electronics, portable power storage and transportation will drive demand for lithium far into the future. This will be influenced by:
- a growth in communication and consumer electronics;
- escalating demand for portable power;
- infrastructure sharing by consumers and utilities;
- the implementation of smart grids to allow individual control of power, and
- revolutionary developments in transportation
Keeping consumers connected
With respect to stationary power applications, lithium-ion batteries are vital as a back-up facility. Load levelling, particularly in parallel with renewable energy sources, is an area of expanding growth. Lithium-ion battery storage will ensure a continuous supply of energy when wind or sun fail to generate enough power to meet demand.
In a recent future-planning report, South Australian Power Networks estimated that, by 2023, rooftop solar panels will be installed on 60-70% of dwellings. As a consequence, new equipment will be needed to maintain customer loyalty to the network.
Consumers will become the power producers of tomorrow, storing excess energy when it’s not required. Utilities will buy this stored power during periods of peak demand, thereby maximising the capital efficiency of the infrastructure – it’s the smart grid of the future.
Moreover, as drivers replace ‘gas-guzzlers’ with ‘electron-eaters’ (EVs), they’ll also be generating power at home, pulling it off the grid and charging their electrical vehicles en route to their destination.
Commercial production – sources
- From brines – lithium-containing brines are volcanic in origin and found in desert areas in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and China. In these brines, the lithium has been concentrated by solar evaporation from soluble salts. Lithium produced from brines is of a low grade but, while the capital input for brine production is high, operating costs are low.
- From high-grade lithium ores (hard-rock deposits) – conventional mining techniques are used to produce lithium from pegmatites containing high-grade spodumene and petalite in Australia, Canada, Zimbabwe and Portugal. The lithium produced is of a high grade. While capital input is low, operating costs with this form of production are high.
- From clay –lithium can also be extracted from hectorite (rare, soft, greasy white clay from volcanic sources). While mines for this type of production are currently in development, the lithium feed grades will be low and the economics of the recovery methods are yet to be vindicated.
Currently, global supply of lithium from brine and hard-rock deposits is around 50% for each method.
Commercial production by country
In the 1980s, hard-rock lithium producers faced fierce competition as South American brine production came on stream with low operating costs. However, Talison Lithium – which produces the world’s highest-grade lithium from its Greenbushes pegmatite mine in Western Australia – still supplies more than 30% of current global requirements and 75% of Chinese demand.
Lithium Australia takes the view that, ultimately, the need for cost and energy efficiencies, along with valuable by-product credits, will lower the cost of producing lithium carbonate from lithium micas, providing the potential for direct competition with brine producers. In anticipation of this, the Company is sourcing targets globally.
Commercial producers and developers
Production from lithium micas
Using innovative processing technology developed by Strategic Metallurgy Pty Ltd under licence, Lithium Australia NL (‘the Company’) aims to produce commercial quantities of battery-grade lithium carbonate from lithium micas, until now a ‘forgotten resource’.
Research by the Company to date suggests that such production will be characterised by low energy inputs and high by-product credits, with low capital and operating costs.