Lithium, applications, properties, glass, ceramics, battery


Lithium, in a nutshell, is a highly chemically reactive element not found on Earth in elemental form. It isn’t mined as lithium. But the commercial world uses the name of the element when talking about the array of lithium resources, supply and demand.

Lithium is the lightest metallic element. As a metal it has important though minor use as its numerous applications in refined mineral form and in a variety of chemical combinations are owed to its innate mineralogical, chemical, electrochemical, and physical properties. Lithium is mined as a silicate mineral or harvested from natural brines and then used in mineral form or converted into lithium chemicals or metal.

Standard applications use lithium in refined mineral form as a flux agent in glass, ceramics, and metallurgy; in chemical form in batteries, glass, ceramics, cement, grease, CO2 absorption, elastomers, pharmaceuticals, and agrochemicals; and as a metal in batteries, pharmaceuticals, and aluminium alloys.

Lithium-based energy storage devices are the fastest growing lithium application and the most promising rechargeable battery type available today. The recently emerged application of lithium chemicals in power tools and portable devices such as laptops and cellular phones created strong increase in demand. Looking forward, the next generation of hybrid and all electric vehicles are focussed on lithium-based battery solutions, as are stationary energy storage systems, and are forecast to further increase lithium demand starting 2013.

The USGS reported dramatic price increases of almost 50% for lithium carbonate between 2006 and 2008 reflecting average growth in demand of nearly 8% per annum in the 2000-2007 period. But, following the general trend, growth slowed dramatically in 2008 to just 2.4% and, even though consumption fell 15% and production collapsed 25% in 2009, US delivered lithium carbonate prices only reflected the market’s reduction with a 20% decrease in January 2010. Throughout, the Chinese market continued unabated, owing to internal fiscal stimulation, based mainly on imported raw materials. The market is expected to return to growth in 2010 with the first significant impact from the automotive industry expected from 2013.

Today the supply of lithium raw materials is dominated by a handful of producers in Chile, Argentina and Australia. New potential demand scenarios have created a rush on the part of junior mining companies and others, some partly supported by major automotive and electronics companies, to develop projects in traditional resource types as well as new ones. Today’s producers have also made clear their resources potential and capabilities for capacity increases.