The versatile mineral
Lithium (Li) is recovered from the mineral spodumene and lithium-rich brines. It is used in a range of products such as ceramics, glass, batteries and pharmaceuticals. Lithium use has expanded significantly in recent years due to increasing use in rechargeable batteries in portable electronic devices and in batteries and electric motors for hybrid and electric cars.
Li is very light, in fact it is the lightest of all metals. It does not occur as a pure element in nature but is contained within stable minerals in a range of rock types or in solution in brine bodies within salt lakes, sea water or geothermal brines. The contained concentration of lithium is generally low and there are only a limited number of known resources where lithium can be economically extracted. These are currently lithium rich brines contained in salt lakes and hard rock mineral deposits.
A metal in demand
The global market for lithium products is very attractive with the supply of raw materials falling behind the emerging demand growth in markets such as China. A large proportion of the increase in the demand side has been driven by continued fundamental growth on the end user application, with consumption from the transportation sector becoming increasingly evident.
China recently set a target of 5 million electric vehicles to be on the road by 2020 – in comparison, there were reportedly 379,000 sales of electric vehicles in China in 2015. As part of China’s effort to combat pollution, Premier Li Keqiang has been leading key initiatives sponsored by the State Council including support at the policy level for new energy vehicles with tax exemptions and subsidies. The government has also encouraged officials, public institutions and city departments to procure electric vehicles for up to fifty percent of the annual fleet purchases (up from the thirty percent requirement set in July 2015).
Apart from China, governments in other countries such as Norway and the Netherlands have banned petrol and diesel engine vehicles by 2025 and completed the switchover to electric vehicles. Additionally, India has recently announced a target of 6 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020 and a complete switch over to electric vehicles by 2030.
Aside from electric vehicles, the growth in lithium battery application has grown from segments such as consumer electronics, energy storage systems for commercial and households, etc. Consumption of lithium continues to follow a strong growth pattern, despite the global economic downturn. Rechargeable lithium batteries continue to support this above average growth, due both to rising output of portable consumer electronics as well as increased capacity (and therefore lithium requirements) per battery.