Lithium is the lightest known metal but its consumption in the form of non-metallic products like lithium carbonate, chloride and hydroxide are core to a number of end markets such as batteries, ceramics, glass and industrial grease.
Over the last three years, lithium has come to the attention of the mainstream media and financial institutions owing to is critical role in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries the batteries that have been chosen to power the next generation of electric vehicles.
Lithium carbonate is the key raw material for battery manufacturing and the production of which has been the focus of a flood of explorers that have come onto the scene in recent years.
It is produced from continental brines predominately in South America, and the hard rock minerals pegmatite and spodumene mainly in Australia.
There are two very different ways of extracting lithium
1. Brine is pumped from subsurface reservoirs to surface ponds. The power of the sun evaporates excess water and concentrates the mineral content of the brine. Once the lithium content reaches 6%, the liquor is removed and processed into lithium chemicals.
2. Hard rock is mining in the more traditional sense. Spodumene is mined and crushed to form a concentrate. This mineral concentrate is then sold to chemical companies which use the feedstock to produce lithium chemicals or to glass and ceramics producers which use it as an additive.
At present, no hard rock lithium miner produces downstream chemicals.
Other sources of lithium being developed or explored are: hectorite (clay), jadarite, geothermal brine, oilfield brine, seawater.
Global lithium reserves in 2012: 13m tonnes
The identified lithium resources total 5.5m tonnes in the US and approximately 34m tonnes in other countries, the USGS said in its 2013 commodity summary. Bolivia and Chile resources total 9m tonnes and in excess of 7.5m tonnes, respectively.
Identified lithium resources for Argentina, China, and Australia are 6.5m tonnes, 5.4m tonnes, and 1.7m tonnes, respectively; while Canada, Congo (Kinshasa), Russia, and Serbia contain approximately a million tonnes each, the USGS SAID. Identified lithium resources for Brazil total 180,000 tonnes.
Major producers: SQM, Rockwood, FMC Corp., Talison Minerals
The vast majority of brine lithium is sourced from the Salar de Atacama in Chile. The driest place on earth not only hosts rich lithium reserves but has the most optimum natural evaporation conditions to process it.
This is where SQM and Rockwood have the worlds leading operations by volume.
The Salar de Hombre Muerto in Argentina is the second largest source through FMCs brine operation.
Smaller brine operations include: Silver Peak in Nevada, USA (Chemetall-owned); Qinghai province, China; and Salar de Rincon, Argentina (Rincon Lithium Ltd).
Australias Talison Lithium is the leading miner of hard rock lithium minerals. The company produces 280,000 tpa of lithium concentrates for customers predominately in China. In 2012 Rockwood initiated a takeover bid for the company, but it eventually lost out to Chinas Chengdu Tianqi Industry (Group) Co., Ltd.
Another source of lithium through the mining of petalite is Bikita Minerals in Zimbabwe. Although production has waned to under 4,000 tpa of concentrates in recent years, the company still has customers in the ceramic and glass industries.
The recent surge of electric car plans from the worlds auto-makers has seen a glut of lithium explorers search for viable sources of lithium and these included some never-before exploited forms of the mineral.
Hectorite, a clay, was being developed by Western Lithium in Nevada, US at the Kings Valley Project for future production of lithium carbonate. But the company decided in 2012 to instead target the oilfields markets and market hectorite as an organoclay or gel.
Rio Tinto Plc uncovered an entirely new mineral, jadarite, in its search for lithium and boron in Serbia. Jadarite hit the headlines after it was discovered to be an exact chemical match to the fictional kryptonite from the Superman series.
Meanwhile, Simbol Mining Corp. is looking to bypass the need for solar evaporation and tap into the waste streams from a geothermal plant at the Salton Sea, California, US. The company is developing a unique processing method (reverse osmosis) to filter out sought-after minerals from the brine, including lithium.
In South Korea, steel company Posco is exploring the possibility of extracting lithium from seawater. While it has its work cut out, considering seawater is by far the lowest concentrations of lithium, it is a process that has been cracked for extraction of magnesia by a number of magnesia producers, including Posco.
Battery applications are expected to be the growth driver for lithium in the foreseeable future. Electric vehicle developments will head this growth underpinned by consumption of portable electronics, like tablets, and power tools the vast majority of which use lithium-ion technology.
Ceramics and glass demand share proportionately will fall owing to the rise in battery sector consumption, but will continue to require concentrates, especially in Asia where the industry is seeing rapid growth.
Industrial applications like lithiums use in grease (predominately hydroxide), aluminium and continuous castings will continue to underpin the industry and fluctuate in line with global industrial activity.