Lithium, Lithium Minerals and Lithium Chemicals
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Published: March 2011
This marketing research report covers primarily lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) (accounting for approximately 74% of world demand for lithium on a lithium basis) and lithium hydroxide (LiOH) (accounting for about 17% of world demand), with additional data on lithium chloride (LiCl), lithium bromide (LiBr), lithium metal (Li), organolithium compounds (e.g., butyllithium [C4H9Li]), lithium hypochlorite (LiOCl), and the mineral resources lithium chloride brines and hard rock spodumene (LiAl[Si4O6]). Lithium oxide (Li2O) does not exist in a commercial form, and is normally used as a reference point for lithium content in hard rock sources of lithium.
The following pie charts show world consumption of lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide.
It is estimated that in 2010, brines contributed to 60% of the total global supply of lithium, while minerals accounted for 40%. The largest sources of lithium from brines are Chile and Argentina, while Australia is the leading source of mineral-based lithium. Chile is the largest source of lithium and SQM is the leading producer, all from brines. In Australia, Talison is the largest producer and the largest mineral producer, accounting for an estimated 80% of all mineral production in 2010.
Production from mineral-based sources is consumed primarily in technical applications, while production from brines is consumed primarily in chemical applications. The exception is China, where a large percentage of lithium carbonate production occurs from mineral-based resources. The leading technical applications include glass, ceramic and metallurgical industries, where its low cost and its inherent benefit of having alumina and silica content make it the product of choice. Growing technical markets include use in lighting as a replacement for lead, and use in fiberglass applications. Use in lighting eliminates the heavy metal lead, while in fiberglass applications, the superior strength-to-weight ratio of lithium fiberglass is projected to allow a significant increase in the size and resultant power efficiency of wind turbine blades. The chemical market is dominated primarily by use in batteries, lubricant greases, primary aluminum production, air treatment as an absorbent and a desiccant, continuous steel casting, as an initiator in rubber and thermoplastic applications, and in pharmaceuticals and aluminum-lithium alloys in aerospace applications.
During 1997–2008, lithium demand grew by almost 7% annually, driven by demand in secondary (rechargeable) batteries for the portable electronics market. With the economic crisis, demand is estimated to have declined by 17% in 2009, but rebounded in 2010 to near 2008 levels. Lithium has become the primary type of battery for the portable electronics market, which includes cell phones, laptop computers, portable entertainment devices and power tools. It is estimated that lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) now account for over 90% of this market, replacing both nickel-cadmium (NiCd) and nickel–metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. However, future growth is forecast to be led by use of LIBs in electric vehicles (EVs). This includes battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs). The largest growth in lithium consumption will occur in BEVs and PHEVs. A large portion of HEVs are forecast to remain with NiMH batteries for some time.
Projected growth in battery applications led to extensive investigation into lithium resources and reserves during 2008–2010. Capacity is forecast to grow very rapidly during 2010–2015. It is already known that current producers and those under development will expand capacity to meet demand as needed during 2015–2025. Demand for batteries is projected to grow at an average annual rate of only about 14.6% during 2010–2015, but the rate will increase to about 21.5% annually during 2015–2020. A conservative growth figure for battery demand is 9.9% annually during 2020–2025. Overall lithium growth is forecast at 8.8% annually during 2010–2015 led by battery applications, and 9.6% annually during 2015–2020. Forecasts for 2020–2025 vary considerably depending on penetration of EVs.
The growth in lithium demand has resulted in the expansion of existing production and development of new lithium deposits globally. Brine deposits are being investigated and developed in Argentina, Bolivia, China and the United States. Mineral deposits are being developed in Australia, Canada, China, Finland and the United States. Other sources of lithium include hectorite clays in the United States and jadarite deposits in Serbia. The reason these deposits have not been developed in the past is that these sources are more expensive than brines, and require higher sales prices to justify the investment. Deposits in Bolivia had not been developed for political reasons. Lithium resources in Afghanistan have also been investigated, but the risk is too high at this time.