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Lithium

What is Lithium?

Name: Lithium

Position on Periodic Table: Third, first element in the Alkali Metals Group

Colour: Silver-white

Description: Lithium is the lightest of all metals, has a density approximately half that of water, and is always found as a compound with other minerals due to its’ high levels of chemical activity when by itself.

Uses:

  • Industrial applications: Heat-resistant glass/ceramics, aircraft construction
  • Technological applications: Lithium batteries (found in laptops, cell phones, and most recently, in electric vehicles)
  • Medical applications: Mood stabilizers (treatment for bipolar disorder)

Where is Lithium located?

Lithium is usually found in brines and mineral deposits around the world. Currently, brines and lithium ores locked in mineral deposits are the source for all commercial lithium production. While brines and pegmatites (coarse-grained igneous rock similar to granite) remain the key sources of lithium, new deposits found in hectorite and jadarite formations provide an alternative potential source. Today, the largest known deposits of lithium are in Bolivia and Chile.

Brines are present in salars (salt lakes or flats) where lithium has been concentrated by solar evaporation. The brines are located at or below the surface and are pumped into large solar evaporation ponds for concentration before processing.

On the other hand,  lithium from hard rock minerals, such as spodumene in pegmatites on the Zigzag Lake property, is often recovered through open pit or underground hard rock mining methods. The ore must be processed and concentrated before applying it directly as a stand-alone product, or processing further into various lithium compounds.

Where is it produced?

Due to the drier, desert-like geology of South America, Chile and Bolivia have become viable locations for lithium development and production. As of 2008, South America as a whole accounted for 60% of world output of lithium, closely followed by Australia and China, which combined to produce 30%.  Two-thirds of that production was from the salt brines around the world, and one-third came from lithium pegmatites. Some pegmatites from Australia, Canada, and Zimbabwe continue to contain high-grade spodumene and petalite, remaining important sources of lithium for local industries within these countries

Lithium's Growing Demand

The market is expected to grow and it is anticipated that new economically viable sources of lithium will be required to meet the growth in demand that is predicted for lithium battery development and applications. Battery manufacturers are expected to be looking for new lithium sources that can provide a long term supply of high quality lithium carbonate, which are equally scalable to keep pace with demand growth, and provide a geographic diversity of supply. This breadth of global interest will serve to enhance the market.

Previous use of lithium compounds and minerals was rooted in the production of ceramics, glass, and other industrial purposes. Due to demand for greener technology, there has been rapid growth in lithium battery use, especially for larger and greener electric car batteries. Overall demand for lithium has been growing at a rate of 7-12% per year, while future demand for lithium is predicted to grow by 20% per year. The result is that lithium battery use has gained a significant portion of the market, with rechargeable lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries showing great promise in shifting the market to cleaner technologies. Lithium is ideally suited for use in battery applications as it has the highest electric output per unit weight of any battery material.

Portable consumer goods such as cell phones, portable computers, wireless handheld devices, electronic games, calculators, watches, video cameras and handheld power tools, are expected to provide growth in demand for lithium batteries as well. Over 60% of mobile phones and 90% of laptop computers feature lithium-ion batteries due to their higher energy density and lighter weight than current alternatives. However, it is the start of mass production of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles using lithium batteries by major automotive manufacturers such as Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Hyundai, in Asia, and Ford, Chevrolet and GM in North America that is the real cause of the interest in the market and the potential for growth of lithium demand.

Obama’s Clean Energy Agenda

President Obama has made global warming one of the key issues of his administration and it’s an extremely ambitious agenda he’s bringing to the table. Included in his agenda is a pledge of $2.4 billion dollars in stimulus funding for lithium battery manufacturing and deployment in the United States.

“New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea. Well I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders and I know you dont either. It is time for America to lead again.”  President Barack Obama

The lithium-ion battery in particular is absolutely critical to President Obama’s energy plan. Lithium-ion battery packs can be manufactured to be any shape or size, adapting to changes in car design. There is also an immense energy-to-weight ratio increasing efficiency of cars, and supporting environmental friendliness. Most new hybrids and electric vehicles being introduced rely on lithium-ion battery technology. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff spoke on how the administration plans on reducing reliance on oil and gas over the next decade:

“Today, we have the chance to achieve a real breakthrough: the plug-in hybrid, Hybrid engines save gasoline by switching back and forth from battery to gasoline power. With a plug-in hybrid, commuters can drive back and forth to work, recharge their cars overnight, and go a month or more without a trip to the gas station.”  
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel

Choose Lithium

Over the last decade, we have been faced with the growing concern of global warming, and a shift in the mindset how we can produce new forms of energy. Lithium is one of those new forms. Due to development and research done on the lithium battery, advances have been made which increase the efficiency of the battery, and the safety of the product. A marked shift towards hybrid and electric cars in the public eye has been supplemented by government initiatives. This mass adoption will only serve to increase the emphasis put on lithium development and technology. Already, lithium batteries enjoy several advantages over the current Nickel Metal batteries including higher energy and power densities, higher useful capacity, greater charge efficiency, lower self-discharge rates and a longer operating life.

To that end, almost every major car manufacturer currently has a lithium battery project in the pipeline and those who support a greener future have pushed for lithium batteries to become the standard in powering the vast majority of electric cars from 2011 onwards.