Lithium (chemical symbol ‘Li’) is a soft, silvery-white alkali metal. Its density is about half that of water, making it the least dense of the solid elements. In other words, under standard conditions, it is the lightest metal and the lightest solid element. It gets its name from “lithos,” the Greek word for stone, because it is present in trace amounts in virtually all igneous rock and also in mineral springs.
Lithium and its compounds have been used in a variety of commercial applications since the 1920s. They have been used in the manufacture of high-temperature lubricants, high strength-to-weight alloys, heat-resistant glass and ceramics and, more recently, in the synthesis of the cathode of lithium-ion batteries (LIBs).
The high energy-to-weight ratio, rechargeability, and charge retention capability of lithium-ion batteries make them ideal for electric vehicles and consumer electronics. They are also becoming important for large battery energy storage systems (BESS) to provide grid resilience for renewable electricity generation.
Two lithium chemicals are used in LIB synthesis: lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide. Traditionally, LIB fabrication required the former but the latter is expected to become the dominant lithium chemical as nickel-rich LIBs become the preferred chemistry in EVs.
The growth in electro-mobility and in rechargeable digital devices shows no signs of abating. Total lithium demand is forecast to grow to almost 2.5 million lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) tonnes by 2030, and to over 4.2 million LCE tonnes by 2040. Notably, between 2020 and 2022 the price of lithium carbonate rose from US$6,000 per tonne to a peak of US$84,000 per tonne. Given the political and consumer pressure for EVs and battery electric storage, there are concerns as to the sufficiency of lithium supply. Further, China’s dominance in the processing of lithium is also causing western governments to shore up their lithium supply chain. Chinese companies control some 80% of the supply chain of lithium-ion batteries (from battery precursor to LiB production).
Production side streams
The manufacturing process of lithium hydroxide produces analcime sand as a by-product, and the spodumene enrichment process produces fine-grained quartz feldspar.
Analcime can be used as a material in the construction and ceramics industry, as an agent in the manufacture of cement and concrete. Other potential uses for analcime include the manufacture of ceramic tiles and use as an agent in the manufacture of asphalt.
Quartz feldspar has various potential uses as a filler in, for instance, asphalt coatings and concrete coatings.